No, the Third IRS Hearing on Capitol Hill Isn't Cracking the Case Open

Philip Bump

For the third time in a week, officials from the IRS appeared before a Congressional committee Wednesday morning to apologize for/not offer new details on how and why the agency improperly targeted conservative groups for scrutiny. The machine spanks on.

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Chair of the House Oversight Committee Rep. Darrell Issa announced today's hearing — "The IRS: Targeting Americans for Their Political Beliefs" — last week. The highlight was intended to be the pillorying testimony of Lois Lerner, the director of the agency's Exempt Organizations Division which, in 2010, began using the terms "Tea Party" and "9/12" to identify applicants for tax-exempt status that warranted additional screening. It was the first time Lerner would appear before one of the hearings. And she is of particular interest. It was Lerner who awkwardly revealed the profiling at a conference two weeks ago. It was Lerner who had, according to Issa, provided the committee with "false or misleading information" during 2012.

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Yesterday afternoon, it became clear that Lerner's testimony wouldn't reveal much. In a message to the committee, she stated that her attorneys were recommending she invoke the Fifth Amendment's protection against self-incrimination. And so she did, as reported by The Hill.

"I have not done anything wrong. I have not broken any laws. I have not violated any IRS rules or regulations," Lerner, the head of an IRS division overseeing tax-exempt groups that targeted conservative groups, said before the House Oversight Committee.

Lerner then said she was following her counsel's advice not to testify. "I know that some people will assume that I have done something wrong," she said. "I have not."

Here's video of the opening statement, and the ensuing exchange:

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As you can see, Issa tried to prompt Lerner to respond to subsequent questions; she refused. Given that there has been discussion of exploring criminal charges in the case, this was probably good legal advice. Nor is it likely that if Lerner had testified, the result would have done much to improve the IRS' terrible public relations track record on the issue.

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Other testimony was provided by Treasury Inspector General J. Russell George (who also testified in front of the House Ways and Means and Senate hearings), Former Commissioner Douglas Shulman (who also testified in front of the Senate), and Deputy Secretary Neal S. Wolin, who hadn't appeared before.

Issa described the rationale for the hearing as being that "the IG report indicts IRS for a colossal management failure, but leaves many questions unanswered." That statement came out two days before the first hearing, six days before the Senate's. Given the breadth of the IG report, and that two of the people called to testify would already have testified, it's not clear what answers Issa and the Oversight Committee expected.

What the committee did expect, it got: The chance to speak sternly to IRS officials, as their colleagues have already done. It's political fruit hanging so low that it's fallen in their laps — obvious misbehavior by one of the least-popular government agencies. Members of Congress, right and left, each took a turn to lambaste the witnesses, though Wolin was mostly left alone.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney asked George if he thought there was a violation of the law. He didn't. Maloney said she would push to see that it was. "Do you agree that [this] doesn't represent our democratic values?," Rep. Mike Turner of Ohio asked Shulman. Shulman grimaced. Issa pressed George to explain why he didn't reveal details of the investigation to Congress before the audit was done; George explained that this wasn't proper procedure. (Before the hearing ended, Issa released a statement to the press on the topic.) "You're sure you're being square with us?," Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio asked Shulman. A beat, then Shulman replied: "Excuse me?" Rep. John Mica of Florida had props, as below, holding up a Constitution and a diagram showing (somewhat obliquely) how the IRS failed to respond to applications for tax-exempt status for 27 months. One of the better lines came from Delegate Eleanor Holmes-Norton of DC, who suggested that the employees were doing "their incompetent best."

The fury slammed into a wall. The witnesses largely dismissed the questions or fought back against personal attacks, which, according to Politico, is the new style. That Shulman no longer works for the IRS probably made his generally hostile responses easier.

Everyone agrees that those responsible for the screening system should be held accountable. How these hearings fit into that, though, isn't clear. So far (the hearing is still going) the committee has gotten information out of all of the witnesses basically equivalent to what it got out of Lerner: nothing new. But the members of Congress got some airtime and some footage of them yelling at the IRS, so the day wasn't a total loss.

Photo: Lerner arrives at the committee to testify. (AP)