By Bernie Becker - 11/08/13 06:00 AM EST
House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) is giving a jolt to the congressional probe of the IRS’s targeting of Tea Party groups with a new subpoena that was issued late Thursday night.
Issa and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) have for months sought documents from the Treasury Department that they say could detail a wide range of interactions with the IRS well before the public learned that conservative groups were singled out for extra scrutiny.
"The American people deserve to know the full extent and breadth of the IRS's misconduct and the Treasury Department's awareness of this misconduct," Issa and Jordan wrote to Treasury Secretary Jack Lew in September.
A Treasury official responded to the subpoena on Friday by stressing the department wants to work with Congress — and reiterating that the IRS is the best place for lawmakers to go for answers.
"To that end, they are going to extraordinary lengths to cooperate with Congress," the official said. "They have dedicated more than 150 employees to tasks relating to the production of information and documents to congressional committees and have produced over 440,000 pages to congressional committees."
Oversight’s subpoena comes just days before the six-month anniversary of the controversy, which broke May 10 after a top IRS official, Lois Lerner, acknowledged the agency had wrongly singled out Tea Party groups seeking tax-exempt status.
The revelations caused a stir up and down Pennsylvania Avenue before being overshadowed by the conflict in Syria, the government shutdown and most recently the error-ridden rollout of President Obama’s signature healthcare law.
Still, even outside of Issa’s newest subpoena, there’s evidence that the targeting controversy could soon return to the forefront.
Senate Finance Committee investigators have been working on a bipartisan inquiry into the targeting for the better part of six months, with an eye toward releasing a report in December.
Committee aides say Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and the panel’s ranking member, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), are aiming to have the report out this year, though the report could easily slip into 2014 due to delays caused by the shutdown.
Finance Committee members from both sides of the aisle have said they think their report will shed significant light on how and why the targeting occurred, after having taken pains to contrast their approach to the partisan acrimony generated by the House’s investigation.
“We’ve been doing an awful lot of work that we don’t talk about. We don’t have a hearing every whip-stitch,” Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) told The Hill on Thursday. “So I think we’re going to have something substantial here fairly quickly.”
“I think we chose, from a standpoint of our oversight of it, not to do it publicly,” Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said.
“Right now, we have great bipartisan cooperation, which should give great comfort to the American people that when the final report comes out, we will have identified those things that need to be changed or those things that potentially broke the law.”
Still, some senators have expressed concern that the Finance report will, at best, be released some seven months after the agency first disclosed the targeting.
“But I trust Max Baucus to follow through on it,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), another Finance member. “We should go ahead and finish the IRS as fast as possible.”
Issa and Jordan, along with top Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee, originally sought information from Treasury in June, including details about a briefing before the 2012 election that the inspector general for tax administration gave to Treasury’s general counsel.
The GOP lawmakers are also seeking any input that Treasury might have given IRS higher-ups before they testified before Congress in 2012, including appearances after senior officials learned of the targeting.
In all, House Republicans are seeking information in close to 10 different areas, dating back as far as January 2009.
The Oversight Committee says it has received around 1,200 pages from the Treasury Department, and that several of their questions have gone totally unanswered.
The panel subpoenaed the IRS for more information in August after top lawmakers in both parties complained about the department’s slow delivery of documents.
“Secretary Lew is responsible for ensuring that all responsive documents and communications held by officials in his agency are produced to this Committee,” an Oversight Committee spokesman, Ali Ahmad, told The Hill.
Treasury has said for months that House Republicans were reaching out to the wrong people.
Treasury’s Alastair Fitzpayne insists that Russell George, the inspector general who outlined the IRS targeting, has answered many of the GOP’s questions.
Furthermore, Fitzpayne has told Republicans, the Obama administration has taken a hands-off approach to tax administration, just like its predecessors.
Meanwhile, House Republicans continue to plug away at an investigation that has grown more complex over time.
The Ways and Means Committee is now examining whether the IRS continued to target conservative groups with audits after they were approved for tax-exempt status — bringing the investigation into yet another agency office, in Dallas.
Republicans have also brought up the targeting as they probe the ObamaCare rollout, stressing that the IRS plays a big role in overseeing subsidies created by the law.
"In the wake of the IRS scandal caused by an effort to target Americans because of their political beliefs, Americans concerned about the IRS and how they will handle this personal and private information have every reason to be concerned," Issa said at an October hearing.
But House Democrats say that Republicans are overplaying their hand, and argue there was no partisan motivation — only incompetence — in the targeting.
Rep. Sandy Levin (Mich.), the top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, this week said GOP talk about a “culture of corruption” at the White House has proven to be overblown.
“There is zero evidence that the White House was involved in this,” Levin said.
— This story was updated at 4:34 p.m.