By Bernie Becker and Peter Schroeder - 05/27/13 10:00 AM EDT
Lawmakers may be out of Washington this week, but congressional staffers will be working to ensure that the IRS controversy is teed up for them when they return.
Both Democrats and Republicans left the recent string of congressional hearings with plenty of unanswered questions about how and why the IRS targeted conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status, and who authorized it.
Lawmakers have also been collecting more and more names of IRS staffers they want to interview, with a particular focus on the Cincinnati office where the targeting began.
“Right now, we’re entering this document collection phase, interview phase,” Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.), the chairman of the House Ways and Means Oversight subcommittee, told reporters on Thursday. “And then there will be more hearings in June when we get back.”
"There’s still a lot of staff interviews that are happening behind the scenes right now, lot of things that are going on," Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.), a House Oversight subcommittee chairman, said that same day. "That's all still ongoing next week."
Still, the next week or so looks likely to be more of a lull in the IRS controversy, after two weeks filled with hearings, resignations and even the question of whether Lois Lerner, a key official in the uproar, waived her Fifth Amendment right to self-incrimination.
Danny Werfel, the acting IRS commissioner who took over last week, is in the midst of a month-long, top-to-bottom examination into how the targeting happened, and how to ensure it isn’t repeated in the future.
Lerner’s future also remains unclear, after she was placed on administrative leave from her position overseeing tax-exempt groups after declining Werfel’s request to resign.
House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and the panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Sandy Levin (Mich.), have already requested a wide range of information from the IRS, including details on conversations between the agency and the White House and Treasury Department and about any discipline faced by staffers.
The IRS missed the May 21 deadline on that request, but Boustany said he expected a lot of documents to make their way to Ways and Means this week. Ways and Means also has access to a fuller range of documents from Treasury’s inspector general for tax administration.
“Chairman Camp and I have been talking about next steps,” Boustany told reporters. “We want to pause, look at what we have and then formulate those next steps. But we do know there’s still information gathering that needs to be done.”
The tax-writing panel and House Oversight concluded their first transcribed interview with an IRS official last week. Holly Paz told the committees that she had sat in on many interviews that the Treasury inspector general conducted for its audit, and Boustany says she gave tips on which employees in the Cincinnati office should be interviewed themselves.
The Louisiana Republican said on Thursday that the committees were trying to set up those interviews, and House Oversight has already asked to interview four other IRS officials beyond Paz.
"I’ll be working full time,” House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said last week.
The efforts of congressional staffers this week are likely to set up a new round of hearings next month.
Issa has said he is ready to bring Lerner back before his panel, after concluding she relinquished her Fifth Amendment rights during her opening statement at a hearing last week, and even some Democrats have said they’d be interested in seeing Lerner brought back.
"The Fifth Amendment is there for good reason, and I don’t think we should read anything into it or out of it, but it certainly whets the appetite," said Rep. Richard Neal (Mass.), a senior Democrat at Ways and Means. "I'd love to have her testify before us. Why not?"
Issa also told reporters last week that he was interested in bringing in the IRS’s chief counsel, William Wilkins, after the Treasury audit suggested that the counsel’s office found out about the targeting in an August 2011 meeting. The IRS has said that Wilkins didn’t take part in that meeting.
Both Boustany and Issa have also suggested that they want to give some of the conservative groups targeted more of a chance to speak publicly about their interactions with the IRS.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), another subcommittee chairman at Oversight, made clear that the panel still had questions about how the Treasury audit came together and why the committee was not informed of potentially troubling findings sooner.
Oversight members pressed the inspector general, Russell George, at Wednesday's hearing, about those issues, and why Paz was allowed to sit in during key points in his audit.
"This thing is just getting started in my opinion, and we need to get to the bottom of it," he said.
For the most part, Democrats made the case after the recent hearings that, while the IRS’s actions were inexcusable, there’s little to link that behavior to Treasury or the White House.
But Issa said last week he’s not ready to clear officials like Neal Wolin, the deputy Treasury secretary, after pressing both Wolin and George about the possibility that Treasury officials knew details about Tea Party groups being targeted in June 2012.
Wolin has said he only knew last year that the inspector general was conducting an audit, and only discovered the full findings in recent weeks.
“He knew there was wrongdoing,” Issa said about Wolin.