WASHINGTON (AP) — Political scandals have strange ways of causing collateral damage, and Republicans are hoping the furor over federal tax enforcers singling out conservative groups will ensnare their biggest target: the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA).
There is a link, but it may only be coincidence. No one appears to have connected the dots factually, and it’s unclear whether they will.
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has a major role in carrying out the health care law, because financial assistance to help the uninsured afford coverage will be funneled through the tax system. At the same time, the IRS is also responsible for penalties on individuals and employers who fail to comply with the law’s requirements.
But the really tantalizing connection is that a former head of the office that subjected tea-party groups seeking tax exemptions to tougher scrutiny is now running the tax agency’s division in charge of implementing the health care law.
That official apparently switched roles before internal alarm bells went off about the problem. But feed all that into today’s frenzied world of online speculation, and red-meat associations are irresistible.
In Saturday’s weekly GOP radio and Internet address, Maryland Rep. Andy Harris tried to make the connection.
“If we’ve learned anything this week, it’s that the IRS needs less power, not more,” Harris said. “As matter of fact, it turns out that the IRS official who oversaw the operation that’s under scrutiny for targeting conservatives is now in charge of the IRS’s Obamacare office. You can’t make this stuff up.”
Earlier in the week, debating the latest GOP bill to try to repeal the health care law, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., also reached for a link. Citing the IRS role in administering the law, she said: “Under Obamacare, the average American will pay more, they’ll get less, and now they have to worry that their government may punish them because of their beliefs.”
Nonsense, says Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, which oversees the IRS.
“There really isn’t a tie,” said Levin. “This is another effort by the Republicans to essentially try to score political points.”
The head of the IRS health care office, Sarah Hall Ingram, was in charge of the tax exempt division when agents first started improperly targeting conservative groups over their applications for tax-exempt status. The fallout has already led to the ouster of acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller, followed by the announcement that the current head of the division will retire.
But the IRS said Ingram was re-assigned to help the agency implement the health care law in December 2010, about six months before a Treasury inspector general’s report said her subordinate, the director of exempt organizations, learned about the targeting.
“There isn’t any evidence that Sarah Ingram had any inkling of the problems,” said Levin. In contrast, Levin continued, ousted commissioner Miller failed to adequately inform Congress after he learned.
At a congressional hearing on the IRS scandal Friday, Miller was grilled by Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Ohio, about Ingram’s shift to running the IRS health care office.