House slaps IRS on targeting, transparency

The House voted Tuesday to stop the Internal Revenue Service from asking intrusive political questions and to block it from sharing taxpayer data without telling taxpayers.

Members passed the two Republican bills after brief debate that heard some Democratic complaints about the bills, although both passed in voice votes without any audible opposition.

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The Protecting Taxpayers from Intrusive IRS Requests Act, H.R. 2531, is a reaction to last year's IRS targeting scandal, in which the IRS admitted to delaying granting tax-exempt status to several conservative groups. Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), who sponsored the bill, said it was motivated by six congressional witnesses who said the IRS was asking detailed questions about the social views of their groups.

"The legislation establishes a new procedure for the IRS to follow when asking questions regarding three areas: religious, political and social beliefs," Roskam said. "The following is the new procedure: that the IRS can't ask those questions."

Roskam said IRS efforts to get details about the operation of these groups was a "shameful abuse and a shameful scandal."

Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.), the only Democrat to speak during the debate, admitted the IRS erred in trying to use certain key words to single out groups for more scrutiny, and said the process was "grossly mismanaged." But Davis said the IRS is on the path to correcting these mistakes.

"Swift, corrective action was taken to remove the ineffective management and the subsequent IRS leadership has put the agency on the right path to restoring the public trust," Davis said. "There has never been any evidence of political motivation or influence from anyone either inside or outside the IRS."

Roskam rejected that by saying, while some Democratic-leaning groups were the subject of IRS scrutiny, those few groups were ultimately approved. In contrast, many Republican groups were never approved.

In a separate voice vote, the House passed the Taxpayer Transparency and Efficient Audit Act, H.R. 2530. This bill requires the IRS to tell taxpayers whenever their data is shared within the government and limits IRS audits to one year.

Roskam, who also sponsored this bill, said it's needed to force the IRS to show more respect to the taxpayers. He said Congress needs to guide the IRS to ensure it works in a "limited fashion, to be wise, not to be abusive, not to be lording power over taxpayers."

Davis, again the lone Democratic speaker, said the bill would require the IRS to respond promptly to taxpayer letters, but said GOP budget cuts will make this impossible.

"The Republicans can't have it both ways," Davis said. "You can't both complain about the IRS not answering its mail in 30 days and then demand that its budget be cut at the same time."

Roskam replied that the IRS routinely demands instant responses from taxpayers but refuses to act as quickly when taxpayers, or even members of Congress, have questions. He said the IRS has delayed giving the House Ways & Means Committee information about the activities of Lois Lerner, the IRS official who eventually left the agency in the wake of the targeting scandal.

"Has the Internal Revenue Service been forthcoming to give Lois Lerner's emails? The answer is, 'no,' " he said. "Difficult, one excuse after another, we're looking, we're searching, all these sorts of 'dog-ate-my-homework' kinds of responses."

The House also approved a third bill by voice vote that would force the federal government to report each year on how taxpayer money is being spent. The Taxpayers Right-to-Know Act, H.R. 1423, would require annual reports on the name of each program, its costs, how many government staff are involved and how many people it serves, the statutory authority for the program, and how it's evaluated.

Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.), who sponsored the bill, said it would help people see clearly where duplication exists in the federal government, and help reduce waste.

"I believe the American people should know what their government spends, and what their government does," he said.

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