Acting IRS Head Who Took the Fall This Week Has Few Answers for Congress

Philip Bump
May 17, 2013

Acting IRS commissioner Steven Miller is testifying in front of the House Ways and Means Committee this morning. It's one of the Congress' first opportunities to grill the agency on its use of politically loaded differentiation in assessing applicants' non-profit status.

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It's an unenviable position for Miller. On Wednesday, Obama announced that Miller would be dismissed from his position — a position that Miller assumed only just last November, well after the IRS had stopped its practice of putting Tea Party groups under increased scrutiny. (Miller will be replaced by Daniel Werfel in June.) Not that he's without blame: Miller was asked last year about the then-unconfirmed allegations by Congress — prior to assuming his current role — and didn't indicate that the practice had occurred. For his testimony today, committee chairman Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan swore Miller in, to reinforce the need for accurate testimony.

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Camp began the hearing by setting the stakes. The problem, he said, wasn't the IRS' use of terms like "Tea Party" and "Patriot" to filter which groups seeking tax-exempt status should receive additional scrutiny. The problem, instead, is that the IRS is "too large" and "too obstrusive." The tax system, he continued, "is rotten at the core, and it must be ripped out so we can start fresh." The chairman justified that claim by explaining that his goal was to examine five different aspects of the IRS' behavior. The Tea Party scrutiny was foremost, but there were other incidents: a White House official discussing the tax status of a company, harassment of donors to conservative groups, the Huffington Post accessing a donor list to the National Organization for Marriage, and a leak of applications for tax-exempt status to ProPublica.

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Rep. Sander Levin, the ranking Democrat, echoed Camp's concerns — with a caveat. The IRS "completely failed the American people," he agreed, but "if this hearing becomes essentially a bootstrap to continue the campaign of 2012 and to prepare for 2014, we will be making a very serious mistake and not meeting our obligation to the American people." After Levin, Treasury's Inspector General for Tax Adminstration J. Russell George (left, above) quickly walked through his office's findings on the scrutiny of Tea Party (and other group) applicants.

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Then it was Miller's turn. He began his brief comments (lamenting he'd only had two days to prepare) with an apology. "Partisanship or even the perception of partisanship has no place at the IRS," he said. But: "I do not believe that partisanship motivated" the filtering. "Foolish mistakes were made by people looking to be more efficient."

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Camp began questioning Miller. He walked through the five incidents outlined in his opening statement. Miller had a few "I don't recalls," and explained that learned about several — the White House official, the Huffington Post and ProPublica leaks — through articles in the news. The last two, he said, were "inadvertent and there have been disciplines." Camp: "But you didn't inform Congress?" Miller: "They were in the press, sir." When Camp pressed him to explain his failure to be forthcoming during his prior testimony, Miller stated flatly, "I always answer questions truthfully, Mr. Camp."

Other committee member than asked questions. Rep. Sam Johnson of Texas pressed Miller on his previous testimony, unsuccessfully. Rep. Kevin Brady, also of Texas, described a resident of his district who, he says, was investigated by the FBI and asked numerous questions after filing for tax-exempt status. Brady then asked, "The broader question here: Is this still America? Is this Administration so drunk with power" that it would harass citizens in this way? Miller's response: I can't talk about a specific case. Brady followed up. Can you assure the committee that none of the IRS' information was shared with other agencies? It would be a violation of the law, Miller replied, and he would be "shocked ... shocked" if it had.

There was a subtext to the hearing today. As we've noted before, critique of the IRS behavior has been expanded to include attacks on the agency's role in administering Obamacare. (During the House's 37th effort to curtail the Affordable Care Act last night, the link between the IRS' behavior and the healthcare policy was used as an argument to support the vote.) One small piece of news won't help sever that link: the person who was in charge of the tax-exempt organizations section of the IRS during the time of the questionable screening, Sarah Hall Ingram, is now leading the section that administers Obamacare.