There are two reasons why a Congressional committee would release a major report two days before Christmas when Washington is a virtual ghost town. The first is that the contents are so important they must be made public immediately. The second is that the authors hope the report will escape notice and sink into obscurity. The decision by the House Oversight and Government Reform to release its report on the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups seems pretty clearly to have been driven by the latter.
The 226-page report issued by Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) is the culmination of more than a year of hearings and document dumps aimed at finding out who was responsible for a policy under which the agency’s Department of Exempt Organizations systematically applied extra scrutiny to applications for non-profit status from organizations that appeared to have a political agenda. While the program targeted both liberal and conservative groups, the pressure fell disproportionately on the conservatives.
Issa made no secret about what he expected to find: top-down instructions from the White House to target conservative groups in the run-up to the 2012 elections. But the report, while chock full of evidence of wrongful conduct that almost certainly damaged the ability of legitimate non-profit organizations to raise money and pursue their goals, found no evidence that the program was directed by Washington.
That didn’t prevent Issa from implying that a connection existed. The report opens by recounting that in October 2014, the president gave a speech in which he complained that a recent Supreme Court ruling had made it easier for corporations to funnel money into political campaigns. Five days later, it notes, and IRS employee who would become synonymous with the targeting program, Lois Lerner, the director of the Department of Exempt Organizations, gave remarks at Duke University in which she expressed concern about the same decision.
The report quotes Lerner: “And everyone is up in arms because they don’t like it. . . . They want the IRS to fix the problem. . . . I won’t know until I look at their [tax return form] 990s next year whether they have done more than their primary activity as political or not. So I can’t do anything right now.”
Apparently based on little more than the two statements’ proximity in time, the report finds, “The pressure to ‘fix the problem,’ as articulated by Lois Lerner, originated with President Obama and senior party leadership.”
Issa’s determination to uncover a link to the White House in the targeting scandal led to increasingly hostile relations between him and Rep. Elijah Cummings, the Maryland Democrat who serves as ranking member on the committee. In one memorable exchange, Issa walked out of a hearing room and instructed his staff members to turn off Cummings microphone as the Democrat was in the middle of speaking.
Lerner invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, and declined to testify before Issa’s committee, sparking widespread Republican outrage. Later, when it was determined that the IRS had lost an untold number of emails to and from Lerner and other senior officials that it ought to have archived, many in the GOP became convinced there was a conspiracy to cover up wrongdoing at the agency.
The release of the Issa report, though, doesn’t mean that IRS conspiracy theorists need give up hope. The report notes that it is not the final word on the targeting scandal, but is simply Rep. Issa’s summing up of his work on the matter. Because he is term-limited as chairman, he will depart as committee chair in January.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who takes over from Issa in January, has been an enthusiastic participant in the IRS hearings, and will continue to receive new evidence in the case when the 114th Congress convenes next month.
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