One year later, IRS probe on backburner

A year after it began, the IRS targeting controversy has been overtaken by the Benghazi attacks on the oversight agenda of House Republicans.

While Republicans are convinced that the Obama administration is stonewalling them on both matters, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and the House GOP have only set up a special committee for Benghazi. 

On the IRS, House Republicans have instead pushed the Justice Department to more aggressively pursue its investigation, and this week pushed Attorney General Eric Holder to appoint a special prosecutor.

There are a variety of reasons for the emphasis on Benghazi, including the chance to further examine further Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s record before a potential 2016 race. 

But the shift also underscores that the investigation into the IRS’s improper scrutiny of Tea Party groups, which Lois Lerner acknowledged and apologized for on May 10, 2013, hasn’t been quite the open-and-shut case Republicans once thought it was.

Following Lerner’s apology, Republicans accused the White House of targeting its political enemies. But a year later, senior Republicans in the party say that might be overstating the case, even though Obama administration deserves ample criticism.

“My instinct is that it is much more a bureaucracy run amok than it was some sort of directed plot from the White House,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said about the IRS’s singling out of Tea Party groups. 

“I think they’re both important and parallel investigations, for different reasons,” added Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.), a member of the House Oversight Committee, which is examining both the IRS and the Libya attacks. “I’m certainly still particularly concerned about the fact four lives were lost in Benghazi.” 

Besides Clinton, House Republicans say that there are logistical reasons to opt for a special committee on Benghazi — a panel, they note, that Boehner had been resisting for months.

At least four House committees have taken part in the Benghazi investigation, with rifts developing between Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) and Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). Only two House committees, Oversight and Ways and Means, have taken the lead on looking into the IRS, though some Republicans have also grumbled about Issa's handling of that probe as well.

Plus, GOP lawmakers and aides say that the various IRS inquiries haven’t uncovered anything like a recently discovered email on Benghazi, in which a key administration official briefs Susan Rice, then the United Nations ambassador, on upcoming Sunday show appearances. 

That email was obtained through a freedom of information request from a conservative group, Judicial Watch, and not via congressional subpoena, further upsetting Republicans.

But GOP lawmakers warn that people shouldn’t read too much into their focus on Benghazi, insisting that both investigations remain top priorities and noting that their conservative base fully expects them not to lose focus on the IRS investigation.

“I’m not convinced you won’t see Congress get pushed too far with the stonewalling from the administration on the IRS also,” said Rep. Rob Woodall (R-Ga.).

A year ago, the IRS controversy sucked up much of the oxygen on Capitol Hill, around Washington and throughout the country.

Both Democrats and Republicans decried the actions of Lerner, then the head of an IRS division overseeing tax-exempt groups, and other IRS officials.

President Obama pushed out the acting IRS commissioner, Steven Miller, within days of Lerner’s apology, and several other top agency officials quickly found themselves without a job.

But the partisan lines surrounding the investigation quickly hardened, with Republicans and Democrats sparring over whether the scrutiny of groups seeking tax-exempt status was politically motivated and whether the White House was involved.

In the ensuing months, Republicans have complained that the IRS has been slow to deliver needed documents, and further intensified their focus on Lerner, who they consider the linchpin of the investigation.

The House voted this week to hold Lerner in contempt of Congress, after ruling she waived her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination by proclaiming her innocence in testimony last year. Republicans have pressed the Justice Department to consider a variety of criminal charges against Lerner.

They have also pushed to delay new proposed IRS rules governing the 501(c)(4) groups at the center of the controversy, even though they would apply to organizations across the ideological spectrum.

Democrats say the GOP has done little more than find bureaucratic mismanagement through a politically motivated investigation that has wasted millions of dollars and trampled Lerner’s Fifth Amendment rights.

John Koskinen, the IRS commissioner tapped by Obama in the wake of the controversy, has urged lawmakers to bring their investigations to a close so his agency can put the last year behind it.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah), the top Republican on the Finance Committee, which is undertaking a bipartisan investigation into the IRS, said he hoped the panel’s inquiry would be released by the end of the month.

Still, Koskinen’s desire to help is part of the reason that GOP lawmakers feel more confident in the IRS investigation now than they do about Benghazi. The IRS, for instance, agreed to hand over all of Lerner’s emails this week.

“I think we’re off to a reasonable start with the IRS commissioner right now,” said Rep. Charles Boustany (La.), a senior Republican at Ways and Means. “I knew we were in for a lengthy investigation. I’ve tried not to put an arbitrary timeline on it.”

Republicans also say that there are still multiple avenues they need to explore when it comes to Benghazi, while all roads lead to Lerner on the IRS investigation.

“You’re doing a special prosecutor because you’re actually focused on one person at this point who becomes the center point of what’s happening,” said Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.), who is in the midst of a contested GOP Senate primary. “Benghazi is not dealing with one person at this point.”

Lankford added that Republicans have questions about the Justice Department’s open criminal investigation into the IRS, where a key attorney has given thousands of dollars to Democratic causes.

Even more than that, the GOP says that this week’s contempt vote for Lerner means they’ve held at least one government official — albeit a now retired one — accountable in the IRS investigation.

“There has been absolutely no one held accountable for anything that has happened in Benghazi,” Woodall said. “We have made more progress in the Lois Lerner IRS case.”