On a rare Friday of congressional action, the first hearing was held to examine the IRS scandal involving the extra, and in some cases unprecedented, scrutiny given to conservative organizations that applied for tax-exempt status over a two-year period covering 2010 to 2012.
Acting IRS Commissioner Steven T. Miller was in the hot seat for nearly four hours, as the House Ways and Means Committee grilled him on how and why the federal tax-collecting agency appeared to inject politics into what is supposed to be an independent process. Miller, who will leave his job next month, was joined by Treasury Department Inspector General J. Russell George — he received a considerably more friendly reception.
As the hearing progressed, Ways and Means members slowly but surely veered into typical partisan camps. Republicans insisted that a political conspiracy was behind the IRS' targeting of conservative groups. Democrats tried to walk a line between disapproval of the IRS' actions, while defending the credibility of the IRS and accusing the GOP of using the scandal to undermine Obamacare, which requires the agency to hire thousands of new agents to police the new law.
Here are the top five takeaways from Friday's hearing:
1. How little Miller knew. As the top official at the IRS, it made sense to call Miller to testify about the findings of the inspector general's report, which found a clear case of bias against conservative groups. (The report also said it could not find evidence of a political motive behind that bias.) But as Republicans and even a few Democrats attempted to figure out how the IRS settled on a strategy that screened for conservative organizations, and not liberal groups, Miller repeatedly responded that he either did not know or could not remember. Who was responsible for what happened? Miller didn't know. What was the timeline for how the policy unfolded? Miller couldn't remember.
Further congressional hearings are scheduled for next week. Miller's apparent ignorance of so many pertinent facts would suggest that maybe the committees getting the next crack at this might want to call other witnesses.
2. The IRS wasn't targeting. Despite confirming that he accepts the inspector general's report, which says that conservative organizations were "targeted," Miller repeatedly corrected Republican committee members who asked him why such targeting took place. He said he rejects the idea that any "targeting" took place, saying he believes that word to be a "pejorative." In fact, the GOP charges that targeting took place — backed up by the IG report — and Miller's rejection of the term was a consistent theme throughout the hearing.
3. Democrats defend the IRS. Reaction to the IRS scandal has been unusual in that it has generated bipartisan outrage, particularly on the part of President Barack Obama. But as the hearing wore on Friday, Democrats increasingly laid the blame for what the inspector general discovered on the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which struck down some long-standing campaign finance prohibitions. Democrats also tried to tie responsibility for what happened to appointees of former President George W. Bush, while conversely defending the integrity of career civil service employees that make up the bulk of the IRS workforce. Finally, Democrats pushed back against Republican charges that the scandal proves that the IRS is not fit to take on enhanced powers to monitor whether Americans have health insurance, as mandated under the Affordable Care Act.
4. Last week's supposedly unscripted admission. Under questioning, Miller revealed that last week's seemingly impromptu admission by an IRS official that the agency had targeted conservative groups was in fact pre-cooked. Critics of the IRS immediately saw this as Miller and others at the IRS trying to give the Obama administration a heads-up about its findings, and wondered how long they knew about what the IG was likely to discover and how many within the government were similarly aware. Miller described the disclosure, which occurred after a planted question was asked during a question-and-answer session, as innocent.
5. Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Pa. Though clearly grandstanding during his designated hearing question time, Kelly delivered a broadside to Miller that channeled how many Americans feel about the IRS. A standing ovation erupted in the hearing room after Kelly, an automobile dealer by trade, was finished. Here's a sampling of the tirade that earned Kelly applause and wide media attention since:
“I am more concerned today than I was before. The fact that you all can do just about anything you want to anybody. You know, you can put anybody out of business that you want anytime you want.”
“And when the IRS comes in, you’re not allowed to be shoddy, you’re not allowed to be run horribly, you’re not allowed to make mistakes, you’re not allowed to do one damn thing that doesn’t come in compliance. If you do, you’re held responsible right then.”
“This is absolutely an overreach and this is an outrage for all America!”