Former IRS Head Weaves and Ducks at House Hearing
Policy + Politics

Former IRS Head Weaves and Ducks at House Hearing

REUTERS/Jason Reed

Acting IRS commissioner Steven Miller—technically relieved of duty at the request of President Obama, but still in command—experienced a bruising round of questions Friday by the House Ways and Committee.

His agency stands accused of targeting Tea Party-themed groups that applied for tax-exempt status. The defensive answers given by Miller exposed the multitude of contradictions in a scandal that screamed onto the public radar at the end of last week. 

The hearing revealed the uneasy relationship between career bureaucrats and career politicians, a willingness to accept responsibility while deflecting blame, and a systemic problem being addressed by pursuing individual officials.

“This is a bad week for America—that’s the bottom line,” said Erik Paulsen, R-Minn., in perhaps the only summary that could prompt agreement from everyone in the room.

Miller failed to inform the committee about the scandal last July, yet claimed he has never misled Congress. “I always answer questions truthfully,” he said.

The targeting was either a “foolish mistake,” in Miller’s words, caused by a lack of manpower and congressional funding.  Or, as Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp argued, caused by an aggressive bureaucracy with too much authority. “This is a problem of the IRS being too large, too powerful, too intrusive and too abusive of honest, hardworking taxpayers,” the Michigan Republican declared.

The acting IRS director refused to say these groups were even “targeted,” despite the use of that term in a Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration report released this week that used variations on the term. Miller insisted that applications from conservative groups were merely “centralized.”

The controversy cost Miller his job and potentially his reputation, but he refused to identify who originated the use of “Tea Party,” “Patriots,” and “9/12” as criteria for reviewing nonprofit applications. “I don’t have names for you,” said Miller, who later amended his remarks to say he could provide names after the hearing of the two IRS employees disciplined for applying this criteria beginning in March, 2010.

When Miller acknowledged that he chose to put Sarah Hall Ingram—the former head of the tax exempt divison—in charge of the IRS’ Obamacare unit last year, it was simply a matter of bureaucratic competence, despite the scandal that has since unfolded.

“She is a superb civil servant, sir,” Miller said.

As a civil servant himself, Miller is not merely resigning, but retiring with a government pension.

Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., mused on the wave of paradoxes in the hearing. “You’re arguing on the one-hand that the IRS is not corrupt, but the subtext of that is we’re just incompetent,” he said.

House Democrats vented that the blame laid not with the IRS, but with Congress itself for allowing a muddied tax code in which “social welfare” charities can dabble in electoral politics.

The 2010 Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United opened the floodgates for nonprofits to tinker in politics, as nonprofits such as GOP strategist Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS became major players in the past two election cycles. But even before the Supreme Court decision, nonprofits with 501(c)(4) status engaged in politics. A 2011 inquiry by congressional Republicans examined the activities of the AARP.

“This committee messed up by not giving any clear criteria on what a real charitable organization is,” said Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., his remarks echoed by other Democrats on the committee.

And in what could be considered the height of irony, Rep. Charles Rangel, D-NY, —who Congress censured three years ago in part for failing to pay taxes—lamented how the IRS has damaged faith in the government.

“It is almost an invitation, as the law is written, for abuse,” Rangel lamented. “Help us to restore the confidence that the people should have in their government.”

But perhaps the biggest contradiction was highlighted at the start of the hearing by Michigan Rep. Sander Levin, the committee’s ranking Democrat. He begged his fellow lawmakers to nail down the facts of the case, even as question after question reflected a degree of partisan warfare.

“We must seek the truth,” Levin said, “not political gain.”