House passes bills to rein in IRS

The House on Wednesday passed a series of bills to rein in what Republicans say is an IRS gone wild, including one that would make it easier to fire agency workers who inject politics into the job of tax enforcement.

Other bills approved would block IRS spending on conferences and tighten enforcement of taxpayer rights.

The bills are largely a response to the IRS's acknowledgement that it targeted conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status. The scandal led to a wave of outrage, with Republican lawmakers charging that those responsible were not adequately punished after senior officials were put on administrative leave without pay.

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As of this week, it's unclear if any officials will be fired or disciplined for what both parties have said is an unacceptable abuse of power. 

The White House has also pushed back against congressional investigations into the matter, with President Obama accusing lawmakers of focusing their time on “phony scandals.”

One of the bills approved today is the Stop Targeting Our Politics IRS Act, H.R. 2565, which would expand the list of legal reasons to fire an IRS worker to include political actions. Rep. Jim Renacci (R-Ohio), the bill's sponsor, said political actions by IRS officials should be on the list and noted that Congress approved similar legislation back in the late 1980s in a wide vote.

"If it is determined that a federal employee did in fact engage in targeting, they should be relieved of their duties," he said. "It is that simple."

Democrats argued that Republicans were pursuing the bill for political purposes. They also argued that it has not been shown that IRS officials were acting politically, arguing that some liberal groups also received higher scrutiny from the agency.

However, Democrats mostly offered token opposition to the bill, in part by arguing that it had not been subject to a hearing. The bill passed by voice, and Democrats did not ask for a roll call vote.

Anger over the IRS scandal was exacerbated by the discovery that agency employees held a wasteful conference at which one senior official dressed up as Mr. Spock for a 'Star Trek' parody video. That conference was the subject of another bill, the Stop Playing on Citizens' Cash Act, or the SPOCC Act, H.R. 2769.

The measure, from Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), would put a moratorium on IRS conferences until it is determined that the agency has adopted recommendations aimed at improving oversight of conferences.

"The Treasury inspector general for tax administration did an audit, and in the course of the audit, discovered that there were funds that were being misused in the context of conferences," Roskam said.

"Some of them were conferences that … even if you were looking at it in the most favorable light from an IRS point of view, were clearly gratuitous and an abuse and overspending."

The SPOCC Act also passed in a voice vote, as did a third bill, the Taxpayer Bill of Right Act, H.R. 2768. This legislation, also from Roskam, would clarify that it's the responsibility of the IRS commissioner to make sure people know their rights with regard to the IRS.

Two broader good-government bills were also approved in voice votes Wednesday afternoon. One of them was H.R. 313, the Government Spending Accountability Act. This bill would codify Office of Management and Budget guidance aimed at reducing government conferences and travel spending by 30 percent.

It would also require agencies to report on conference spending each quarter, and make public all materials presented at conferences.

Members also passed H.R. 1660, the Government Customer Service Improvement Act, which would require the government to establish federal customer service standards.

Democrats put up more of a fight on three other bills that will get a vote later in the day. One of these would make it possible for federal agencies to put officials on leave with or without pay during investigations into their conduct.

The other would cap senior federal worker bonuses at 5 percent of employees' salaries, which Republicans said is needed to reduce spending at a time when lower-level workers are being furloughed.

In both cases, Democrats said these bills would make it harder to retain qualified workers.

The other bill to get a vote tonight would allow people to record phone calls or other interactions with federal workers.