What a Difference a Scandal Switch Makes: Oversight Dems on Fire vs. ex-IRS Chief
On a scandal-to-scandal basis, you'd hardly know that the same Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee were in the Benghazi hearing two weeks ago and today's similarly anticipated hearing on the IRS scandal.
Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), for example, charged Republicans with being “disgraceful” on the Benghazi investigation and dismissed claims of retaliation against whistleblowers. Others accused the GOPs of stoking scandal where none exists.
Today, Lynch came at former IRS commissioner Doug Shulman with both barrels, comparing the "blatant violations of individual freedom of expression" to repression of political activists in China and Belarus.
"Anything that criticizes the government on how this country is being run. That was subject to enhanced investigation by the IRS," Lynch said. "…If this committee is prevented by obstruction or by refusal to answer the questions that we need to get to the bottom of this, you will leave us no alternative but to ask for the appointment of a special prosecutor, our appointment to special counsel to get to the bottom of this."
"I watched the last hearing where the witness for the IRS had no names and no direction as to who led these investigations, who chose the terms to be used and basically stonewalled the committee," the Massachusetts Democrat continued. "That cannot continue. We know where that will lead. It will lead to a special prosecutor. It will lead to special counsel being appointed to get to the bottom of this. So I hope that's not the approach of the IRS going forward because there will be hell to pay if that's the route that we choose to go down."
White House press secretary Jay Carney brushed off Lynch's call as "a hypothetical."
"I expect independent criminal investigations -- so I haven't had this conversation -- but I expect that the attorney general and those who will work on the investigation at the Department of Justice expect to get answers. And, again, I think you have a 30-day top-down review at the IRS with new leadership. You have congressional oversight. You have Department of Justice investigating. I think that demonstrates the seriousness that both branches of government are -- the seriousness of which both branches of government here are addressing this matter," Carney said.
"And I don't think that there's any indication, given that seriousness, given that determination to get to the bottom of this, to get the facts and to hold people accountable, that there's any reason to take that step. And that's the president's view, as he said last week."
But as Lynch feared, Shulman was no more forthcoming today than he was before the Senate Finance Committee yesterday.
"I personally don't remember ever hearing about this until the spring of 2012," said the former commissioner who stepped down three days after President Obama's re-election. When asked why he would have been at the White House 118 times in 2010 and 2011 if he didn't have any conversations with Obama about the targeting, Shulman mused that he must have been at "the Easter egg roll with my kids."
That answer annoyed Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who leaned heavily on questions regarding Citizens United and whether Tea Party groups did enough social welfare work to qualify for tax-exempt status. Connolly's tone changed with the indignance of Shulman, and he testily reminded the ex-IRS chief that he was under oath.
"You've never had any conversation with respect to this subject, the subject of this hearing, with anybody at the White House, though you were at the White House 118 times?" Connolly asked.
"Yeah, I mean, just so I'm -- just so I'm clear, I have no memory. Wouldn't have been appropriate. Would not have been appropriate to have a conversation with the White -- with anyone at the White House about the subject of discriminating against conservative groups in any part of our operation," Shulman responded.
Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) grilled Shulman on why he failed to inform Congress about the target list last year when he learned of it.
"So, what I can recall is that I learned about the list after that testimony. And when I learned about the list, I learned two other things. You know first I -- I learned that the activities were stopped. So by the time it got to me, the list was no longer being used within appropriate criteria, and I also learned that the matter was in the hands of the IG," Shulman said. "…Were there liberal groups as well as conservative groups? I didn't have the facts."
"That answer would be more acceptable if you had not given the answer that you did in March 2012. When Congress asks you a question and then you say these words, 'There's absolutely no targeting,' it seems to me that even given what you just said, you knew that Congress was concerned about this issue? You knew then that the information -- you just said it, had been corrected. But it seems to me that if you say to the Congress, absolutely not! Absolutely no targeting! It seems to me that you would come back, even it was a phone call, or letter, or something -- I mean common sense," Cummings said.
"People -- I mean a reasonable person would expect you as the head of the IRS, communicating with Congress, to come back and do that. You didn't feel that way, though?"
Shulman was ever on the defensive. "At the time I learned about this list, I felt I was taking the appropriate actions, and that my course was the proper one," he said. "And I still feel that way today."
"It's simply not good enough, Mr. Shulman," Cummings said. "…You personally knew there was a target list. You knew it said 'tea party' on it. You put new processes in place, and you took personnel actions. You reassigned at least one individual back in 2012. Come on Mr. Shulman. I mean we - help us help the taxpayers."
Several members on the committee noted that the panel was more unified than it's been in a long time, and Cummings' increasingly heated exchange with Shulman revealed comity with chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) that was nonexistent during the Benghazi hearing.
Under questioning from Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), Shulman claimed he only got two notices from members of Congress concerned about targeting instead of the 132 letters actually sent to him.
"Do you take responsibility for what happened in the Cincinnati office?" Speier asked.
"Being done? You know, I don't take personal responsibility for there being a list with criteria put on it, but I do accept the fact that this did happen on my watch," Shulman said.
Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) asked what Shulman will actually take responsibility for.
"I wouldn't go down a long list. I was the leader of the IRS at the time that this happened. I accept the fact that this happened on my watch, and I'm very sorry that this happened while I was at the IRS," he responded.
"Mr. Shulman, do you accept responsibility for Ms. Lerner's failures as your employee?" Duckworth continued. Lois Lerner, head of the tax-exempt division, refused to answer questions early in the hearing after declaring in a statement that she's innocent of all wrongdoing.
"I have the same answer. This happened on my watch. I do not accept responsibilities for all of the actions taken by all of the people outlined in the report," he said.
Duckworth, who lost both of her legs in the Iraq War, chided Shulman that "you're always responsible for the performance, the training, the actions of the men and women under you."
"I am deeply disappointed in your answer because right now in forward operating bases in Afghanistan, all over the world we have 25-year-old buck sergeants and second lieutenants who know you can delegate authority, you can never delegate responsibility," she said.
On Shulman's part, the former head of the IRS wasn't projecting an attitude today that would win him many friends.
Least of all Lynch.
"My understanding was the conservative groups were not the only ones getting these questions. That was my memory," Shulman said.
"Now you're saying that they weren't being targeted because other groups were also being targeted for their political views. Is that what you're saying?" Lynch asked.
"No, that's not --"
"Well, that's interesting, because that's just what I heard."
"Well, I'd love to explain it to you, Congressman," Shulman said. "At no time, to the best of my memory, that -- was I ever given the impression that these were only being asked of conservative groups."
"After telling Congress that no -- absolutely no one is being targeted, you learn that there's a list, a list of people being targeted, tea party, patriots, people who are critical of how the government is being run, and -- and what did you do after that point?" Lynch said. "You did nothing. You did nothing to straighten out the impression that you had left by your testimony before Congress. Sir, you misled Congress. You misled Congress. Make no question about it. You told us one thing. When you learned -- when you learned that our suspicions were true, when you learned that there was a list, you did nothing. You did nothing."
Shulman carefully framed his words throughout the hearing, saying he "was dismayed and saddened to read the inspector general's conclusions that actions had been taken creating the appearance that the service was not acting as it should have."
Democrats on the panel lauded Issa's announcement that he'll summon the new acting IRS chief, White House budget official Daniel Werfel, "to come before us so that we can perhaps see in advance whether the management skills are there."
"I thank you because I think that's a major move," Cummings told Issa.
Freshman Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) noted "the inept, inexcusable actions of the IRS have done more to unify Democrats and Republicans than I've seen in my five months here so far."
"So that's what I'm going with. I'm going to try to work off of that," Pocan added.
"I'd use it until we lose it, and hopefully we won't," Issa said.