WASHINGTON — The IRS’s improper use of tougher scrutiny of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status seems part of a broader pattern of intimidation and cover-ups by the Obama administration, a top House Republican said Friday.
The House Ways and Means Committee, led by Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., held the first congressional hearing into the tax agency’s improper targeting of tea party and other conservative groups.
The just-ousted acting chief of the IRS, Steven Miller, expressed regret for the heightened reviews.
“I want to apologize on behalf of the Internal Revenue Service for the mistakes that we made and the poor service we provided,” Miller told the committee.
“The affected organizations and the American public deserve better. Partisanship and even the perception of partisanship has no place at the Internal Revenue Service.”
Camp referred to a “culture of cover-ups and intimidation in this administration,” but offered no other examples.
The administration has been forced on the defensive about last September’s terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans, and the government’s seizure of The Associated Press’ telephone records as part of a leaks investigation.
Republicans are hoping to link the issues in an effort to raise questions about President Barack Obama’s credibility and make it harder for him to press a second-term agenda.
Camp’s remark drew a sharp retort from the committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan. Levin said if the hearing became a preview of the 2014 political campaigns, “we’ll be making a very, very serious mistake.”
Even so, Levin also was harshly critical of the IRS’s treatment of conservative groups. He said Lois Lerner, who heads the IRS division that makes decisions about tax-exempt groups, should be “relieved of her duties.”
Though Miller and another top IRS official are stepping down, Camp said that would not be enough.
“The reality is this is not a personnel problem. This is a problem of the IRS being too large, too powerful, too intrusive and too abusive of honest, hardworking taxpayers,” Camp said.
Miller said the IRS struggled to efficiently handle growing numbers of applications for tax-exempt status, and that political bias was not the reason for the increased scrutiny.
Lawmakers had asked the IRS repeatedly about complaints from conservative groups that their applications were being treated unfairly, but said Miller and others never told them the groups were being targeted.
Members of Congress said this continued even after May 2012, when the agency says Miller was briefed on the practice. Miller was previously a deputy commissioner whose portfolio included the unit that made decisions about tax-exempt status.
Also testifying Friday was J. Russell George, the Treasury Department’s inspector general for tax administration.