By Bernie Becker - 10/22/14 06:00 AM EDT
Republicans vow to put the clamps on the IRS if they sweep to power in November.
GOP lawmakers and aides believe that House-passed legislation to limit the IRS’s reach would have a better shot at making it to President Obama’s desk if Republicans win control of the Senate on Nov. 4.
The intensified oversight would be particularly damaging to the IRS’s increasingly public role in another GOP target, ObamaCare. The agency scheduled to start enforcing the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate penalty in 2015.
“Most of the oversight has, frankly, been taking place in the House,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), one of the IRS’s most consistent critics in Congress, told The Hill.
“You’re going to have more eyes looking at this issue, potentially twice as many hearings happening,” Jordan added. “That gives you that much more opportunity to get to the truth, in spite of the fact that the administration is not cooperating.”
Even with control of just the House, Republicans note that the congressional investigations into the IRS have made a range of discoveries, including that the IRS couldn’t locate an untold number of emails from Lois Lerner, the former agency official at the center of the improper targeting issue.
Still, how much Republicans can do to reduce the IRS’s power — and satisfy their conservative base — remains an open question. And spokesmen for both Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerHouse GOP faces dilemma on spending bills Overnight Finance: Puerto Rico bill clears panel | IRS chief vows to finish term | Bill would require nominees to release tax returns Overnight Defense: Pentagon chief fears sequestration's return MORE (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellOvernight Healthcare: Momentum on mental health? | Zika bills head to conference | Only 10 ObamaCare co-ops left Trump outlines ‘America First’ energy plan Senators hope for deal soon on mental health bill MORE (R-Ky.) are being careful not to overpromise.
Both the House Ways and Means and Oversight committees, two panels heavily involved in the congressional investigation, are scheduled to have new chairmen in 2015, making it difficult to predict what’s on tap for the IRS.
“Republicans will continue our oversight efforts of the IRS to ensure accountability for constituents, particularly when the First Amendment is at risk,” said Don Stewart, a McConnell spokesman.
McConnell, provided he defeats his Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes, would control the floor if Republicans pick up at least six Senate seats, an outcome most analysts believe is more likely than not.
Releasing a long-awaited bipartisan report on the IRS controversy would be a top priority for the Senate Finance Committee in 2015, according to a GOP aide, provided that the report isn’t released this year.
The Finance panel, which would be led by Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin HatchGOP senator reacts to Garland meeting before it happens Senate amendments could sink email privacy compromise Overnight Defense: VA chief 'deeply' regrets Disney remark; Senate fight brews over Gitmo MORE (R-Utah) in a GOP Senate, was almost finished with the report when the IRS revealed it couldn’t find all of Lerner’s emails in June. The committee is now waiting on a Treasury Department inspector general to conclude an inquiry into the missing documents.
The bills passed by the House this year include a measure to bar the IRS from revamping regulations for the 501(c)(4) groups at the heart of the Tea Party controversy for a year.
Some of the GOP bills also sailed through the House without opposition, including one to give more appeal powers to groups rejected for tax-exempt status and another to ban IRS officials from using personal email accounts for official business. Oversight Committee Republicans have also floated broader reforms to the IRS, including getting rid of the commissioner position.
Hatch and House Republicans are also expected to keep a close eye on the IRS’s handling of the 2015 tax season, especially given that experts have expressed worry about the complexity of the individual mandate tax forms.
But even as they gear up for 2015, top Republicans have already hinted they’re not itching for a fight on perhaps the most concrete way to limit the IRS’s reach — through its budget.
Aides for the Appropriations committees have said they’re working on omnibus legislation that would fund the government from December 2014 through September 2015.
Because Democrats would control the Senate for the rest of 2014, that approach would also push back any major fight over cutting IRS funding.
Kevin Smith, a BoehnerJohn BoehnerHouse GOP faces dilemma on spending bills Overnight Finance: Puerto Rico bill clears panel | IRS chief vows to finish term | Bill would require nominees to release tax returns Overnight Defense: Pentagon chief fears sequestration's return MORE spokesman, would only say, “we’ll work with all of our members, including the appropriators, to address these issues after the election.”
Lawmakers have already cut the IRS budget by almost $1 billion since 2010, when it hit a high of roughly $12.1 billion, and top agency officials have made it clear they’ll fight for more money. But House Republicans have pushed for even deeper cuts to the agency’s budget, with proposals as low as $9 billion in the weeks after the targeting controversy broke in May 2013.
Some conservatives have said they would like to come back to the IRS’s budget more quickly next year. But other Republicans have suggested that reducing the IRS budget might need to be more of a long-term project, with the GOP wanting to show it can govern ahead of the 2016 elections.
“There’s certainly no desire to give the IRS more money,” one GOP aide said.
Republicans also acknowledge that, even with double the potential oversight, it’s tough to say how much more their investigation might find on a topic that dominated discussion in Washington at first, but since has played only a supporting role in the midterm campaigns.
GOP lawmakers say Obama and his administration have stonewalled their investigation, and they have urged Attorney General Eric HolderEric H. HolderEric Holder to headline fundraiser for Clinton The Hill's 12:30 Report The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE to appoint a special prosecutor.
Investigators are eyeing other IRS officials who lost emails, while House Republicans have already held Lerner in contempt of Congress and referred her to the Justice Department for potential prosecution.
“People come up to me all the time to discuss this,” Jordan said, adding about Lerner: “The one thing I do hear from people over and over is that no one has been held to account.”
Most Democrats say that almost 18 months worth of investigations have found no evidence that the improper scrutiny was politically motivated.
Jordan Sekulow, director of the American Center for Law and Justice, said that Congress had already found new revelations in the IRS case when it felt like the controversy was slipping from the public’s view, and that he was excited to see what full GOP control would mean.
“The president’s going to have to deal with a new political reality if the Senate goes Republican,” said Sekulow, whose group represents dozens of parties suing the IRS. “This is about getting to the bottom of this scandal, and we need all the help we can get.”