The GOP’s baseless IRS accusations: Smears won’t solve the underlying issue

Aug 13, 2013

For nearly three months, Republicans have engaged in a sustained and orchestrated campaign to accuse the White House and the Obama administration of using the IRS to target the president’s political enemies — without any evidence to support their claims.

House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) led the charge, alleging this was the “targeting of the president’s political enemies.” Other Republicans followed suit, citing “the enemies list out of the White House” and arguing that President Obama “doesn’t have clean hands.” And they invoked the specter of disgraced former president Richard Nixon.

Yet our committees’ review of thousands of documents and interviews with more than a dozen IRS employees have not uncovered a scintilla of evidence to substantiate their claims. Unfortunately, the facts have not stopped our Republican colleagues from lobbing baseless accusations in the cynical hope that people would believe them. The column last week on this page, “Holes in the IRS narrative,” by Issa and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.), continued the effort to suggest the existence of a scandal that the established facts do not support.

Let us be clear: There was mismanagement at the IRS, and IRS employees screened applications for tax-exempt status for further review based, in part, on the names of the organizations.

But there is absolutely no evidence of political motivation or White House involvement.

To the contrary, IRS employees indicated that they sought guidance on how to process these applications in a consistent manner according to the law, with one tax law specialist in Washington — a self-identified Republican — calling the Republicans’ accusations “laughable.”

This reality was confirmed by the IRS’s inspector general, who testified under oath that he found no evidence to support the Republicans’ claims of political motivation in the selection of the tax exemption applications. Likewise, the inspector general’s top investigator, who reviewed 5,500 IRS employee e-mails, found “no indication that pulling these selected applications was politically motivated.” Rather, this investigator explained that the e-mails showed that “the organizations needed to be pulled because the IRS employees were not sure how to process them, not because they wanted to stall or hinder them.”

Republicans have also recently claimed, as Issa and Camp wrote in their op-ed, that progressive groups received “routine scrutiny” that was somehow fundamentally different from the systematic treatment of the tea party applications.

But Daniel Werfel, the acting commissioner of the IRS, disagrees. He testified that there were progressive groups that were treated similarly to the tea party applicants, with some facing three-year delays. In fact, he said some progressive groups were even denied tax-exempt status — unlike the tea party applicants, who were just delayed.

Documents received by the Oversight and Government Reform Committee confirm the acting commissioner’s conclusion, including a training document that directed IRS employees to look for “progressive” groups just like “tea party” groups and to send them to a team of specialists in Cincinnati for heightened review and scrutiny. We now know that IRS employees were also screening for Occupy Wall Street groups and sending those applicants to that same unit. And, contrary to Republican claims, the inspector general confirmed that some tea party, patriot and 9/12 applications were, in fact, approved by the IRS during the time of his review.

Many of these are documents that the inspector general, a Republican appointee, said he never reviewed when he conducted his initial audit. Perhaps that is because the inspector general never investigated what happened to the progressive groups.

The inspector general’s top auditor testified that “we don’t know” whether tea party, 9/12 and patriot groups were treated predominantly different than occupy or progressive groups because they did not “audit” those groups. In fact, the inspector general only focused on less than 2 percent of the relevant tax-exempt applicants, and even during that examination, refused to tell the public how many of the groups that he reviewed were politically progressive.

The sad reality is that while House Republicans have devoted time and taxpayer money to attempting to smear the White House, they have failed to examine part of the underlying problem the IRS faces: inadequate guidance on how to process applications of organizations seeking tax-exempt status.

Instead of misleading the public with inaccurate and inflammatory rhetoric, Republicans should join Democrats in focusing on reform. President Obama has already removed the former IRS commissioner, installed an acting commissioner who is improving the process for reviewing applications for tax-exempt status, and nominated a permanent commissioner. In addition, Democrats on our committees have pushed to clarify the law regarding tax-exempt status so IRS employees can do their jobs more efficiently.

Members of Congress must abandon their attempts to score political points and, instead, re-focus their efforts to confirming a new commissioner of the IRS, restoring the public’s trust in the agency and fixing the vague standards that led to these problems in the first place.

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