GOP threatens IRS purse strings

GOP appropriators on Monday said they would use the IRS’s purse strings to get answers about how and why it targeted conservative groups.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said his panel may impose conditions on IRS funding, calling the targeting tantamount to a political enemies list that harkens back to “a dark page in our past.”

Other Republicans on the panel wondered how Congress, in the words of Rep. Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.), “should spend one more dime” on the agency without having more answers on how the tax agency is currently operating.

“We will not rest until this is done,” Rogers told Danny Werfel, the acting IRS chief, at an Appropriations subcommittee hearing on Monday.

“And I don’t need to remind you or anybody else that the power of the purse rests with the Congress, and we’re prepared to use that purse to get to the truth.”

Werfel, in his first testimony on Capitol Hill in his new role, stressed that he was pressing ahead to fix the problems that allowed the agency to single out Tea Party groups seeking tax-exempt status, but also insisted that examination would take time.

The acting IRS chief, still less than two weeks into his new role, said that he was prepared to defend President Obama’s budget, which calls for a roughly $1 billion increase in the agency’s funding.

But given what’s happened with the agency’s oversight of tax-exempt groups, Werfel also said it was the “wrong starting point” to say that part of the IRS needed more money.

“The chairman started this hearing by saying, ‘How can we give another dime?’ And my answer is, let’s explore together what’s going on in this process and figure out what the right funding is,” Werfel said. “But I can’t sit here and say we need more money for that aspect of IRS operations without working with you on the review.”

While the acting IRS chief received tough talk from Republicans about the agency’s funding, he did not receive the same sort of grilling as senior IRS officials who were at the agency while the targeting occurred, like Doug Shulman and Steven Miller.

Werfel made his debut on Capitol Hill as new fronts open in the controversy surrounding the agency, with a new audit from Treasury’s inspector general for tax administration expected to show on Tuesday that the IRS spent millions of dollars on conferences.

That same inspector general outlined, in a report last month, the targeting of conservative groups.

With lawmakers back in Washington, conservative groups are scheduled to testify on Tuesday before the House Ways and Means Committee on their treatment by the IRS.

House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) has loudly made the case in recent days that officials in Washington — and not the embattled office in Cincinnati — directed the targeting. Democrats have called Issa’s claims overblown.

Democrats at Monday’s hearing offered little cover to the IRS but also sought to broaden the scope of the inquiry to reach beyond the years of the Obama administration and to the tax agency’s general oversight of tax-exempt groups.

“It’s hard to shock and awe somebody who’s from Chicago,” said Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.). “I get it. But this is getting there.”

Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.) said any probe of the IRS targeting should extend back into the administration of President George W. Bush.

He said the complaints Tea Party groups are raising about improper targeting for scrutiny echo those raised by groups that were opposed to the war in Iraq. And he cautioned Werfel against being so open about his funding levels.

For his part, Werfel maintained that he and most IRS staffers were appalled by the current controversy and that there were still many unanswered questions about how the agency came to single out conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status.

“The public is rightly concerned and upset — as am I —about the inappropriate and unacceptable actions,” he said.

Werfel now is in the midst of a 30-day, top-to-bottom review of the IRS, undertaken at the request of Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, that he said would try to identify what went wrong and to hold agency staffers accountable.

“Like everyone else, I’m frustrated, too,” Werfel said. “I want these facts to emerge quickly.”

Under questioning from Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.), Werfel also asserted there has been accountability at the agency and later said the agency was working to sift through some of the tax-exempt applications that should have already been dealt with.

Three IRS officials had either been placed on leave or were exiting the agency, including Miller, the former acting commissioner, and the public servant at the center of the controversy, Lois Lerner.

Russell George, the inspector general for tax administration, told the House Appropriations subcommittee that officials in the Cincinnati office would not say who ordered the targeting.

The inspector general also stressed that there was no evidence the White House played a role in the targeting but that his office is continuing to review whether the IRS’s actions were politically motivated.

This story was last updated at 8:45 p.m.