By Peter Schroeder and Bernie Becker - 06/09/13 04:45 PM EDT
Republicans are warning the new IRS chief that his honeymoon will be short unless he does more to clean up the agency and explain how and why the targeting of conservative groups began.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle acknowledge that the acting commissioner, Danny Werfel, is saying the right things and has been aggressive in his first two weeks on the job — especially compared to his predecessors, and given the IRS's reputation for being a slow-moving bureaucracy.
But GOP members say that Werfel will soon have to move beyond placing staffers on administrative leave and prove to Congress that he’s working to get to the bottom of the situation.
“I understand the enormity of the moment and the enormity of the challenge,” Werfel told the House Oversight Committee on Thursday. “I want to get to work and roll up my sleeves.”
Republicans who have been hotly critical of the IRS have taken a softer touch with the man tapped by President Obama to steer the agency through the crisis, and have pledged to back his efforts.
House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who has doggedly pursued the improper targeting of Tea Party groups, said Thursday that Werfel’s first steps had been reassuring.
“No doubt something bad happened. It didn't happen on your watch. We're not blaming you,” he told Werfel. “But you're the person we're looking to take immediate and decisive action, and to the extent you have so far, I want to personally thank you.”
But Republicans warn that their support for Werfel could get dialed back if they don’t start getting more answers from the IRS.
Rep. Charles Boustany (R-La.), the chairman of the House Ways and Means oversight subcommittee, said this week that the IRS had been slow to respond to the committee’s request for documents on the targeting.
The IRS responded to the panel on Wednesday, two weeks after the deadline set by committee leaders. In his response, Werfel said that investigations from the Justice Department and Treasury’s inspector general for tax administration would likely need to supplement his answers.
“It’s hard to put a time on that. But we’re expecting action now,” Boustany said, after being asked how long Republicans would accept those sorts of responses. “We don’t have a grace period. We’ve got to keep moving.”
Other fault lines between Republicans and Werfel are becoming apparent. The IRS chief has been light on some specifics, and Republicans are eager to pin down details on who knew what when, and who signed off on adopting the policy of singling out conservative groups.
At Thursday’s Oversight hearing, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) also pressed Werfel to encourage Lois Lerner, the IRS official who recently invoked the Fifth Amendment before Congress, to come back before the committee and answer questions.
Shortly thereafter, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) pushed for the findings of a review initiated by the former acting commissioner, Steven Miller, who President Obama pushed out of office shortly after the controversy broke.
“I appreciated his tone, although we have a long way to go to see if there’s any action,” said Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.), who sits on the House Appropriations subcommittee where Werfel testified for the first time Monday. “We’ll see whether the actions back up the words.”
Werfel’s reception on Capitol Hill has undoubtedly been helped by the testimony of his two immediate predecessors, Miller and Doug Shulman.
Both Miller and Shulman testified twice before Congress about the targeting, and lawmakers in both parties have said the senior officials’ resistance to their questions left them immensely frustrated.
Still, even that will only get Werfel so far.
“That’s not a high bar,” said Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), who heads a Ways and Means health care subcommittee. “The arrogance and the dismissiveness, I think, was almost unprecedented.”
Yoder questioned whether someone hand-picked by the president could be trusted to get to the bottom of the matter.
“I don’t know that an individual who was selected by the White House to lead the IRS is going to have the proper perspective and distance,” said Yoder.
Republicans are particularly incensed that badly behaving IRS employees are still receiving a paycheck — especially after Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) last month suggested some of them should go to jail.
Werfel has placed three IRS employees on administrative leave since taking the reins two weeks ago, including Lerner, the staffer at the center of the targeting scandal.
The IRS placed Lerner, who first disclosed and apologized for the practice, on leave after she declined Werfel’s request to resign.
Werfel also placed on leave two employees who received over $1,000 of free food at a 2010 IRS conference that ended up costing over $4 million.
But those staffers are also still employed, at least in part because of safeguards in place for federal workers.
Both Issa and Werfel said Thursday that they were open to changes that would allow for federal employees to be removed more quickly.
“You can move the process quickly, but I think every often it's not quick enough,” Werfel said. “And it's something that — that certainly we should explore.”
Werfel has won over Democrats, who eagerly back the president’s pick and hail his early steps as the right prescription.
“He’s certainly gone on the offensive, there’s no question about that,” said Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee. “The conversation has to begin with, ‘Yes, there’s a problem.’ He gets that.”
“He is a very impressive guy,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the top Democrat at House Oversight. “I think the president made a great choice."