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Two years later, IRS probes drag on

Two years later, IRS probes drag on
© Greg Nash

Exactly two years after the IRS first admitted improperly scrutinizing Tea Party groups, congressional investigations into the tax agency show no sign of drawing to a close anytime soon.

Congressional Republicans say they are deeply irritated that they haven’t finished off the investigations launched after Lois Lerner apologized for the IRS on May 10, 2013, and insist that President Obama’s Justice Department has stonewalled their efforts.

Top lawmakers like Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) note that they’ve only just received thousands of emails to and from Lerner that the IRS said were unrecoverable close to a year ago.

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Hatch recently said he hoped a bipartisan Finance report, which members once thought could be released more than a year ago, could come out by the end of June. But congressional investigators maintain that they'll need to make sure they have a fuller accounting of Lerner's email trail before any reports are circulated.

Asked about the repeated delays, Hatch said simply: “Every time we turn around we get more emails.”

Congressional committees have received about 5,000 of the roughly 6,400 newly recovered Lerner emails they expect from Treasury’s inspector general for tax administration, a GOP aide said Friday. The aide said that there appears to be little new in the emails, and that the inspector general is expected to issue a broader report on the emails in the coming weeks.

Hatch is far from the only GOP lawmakers fuming about the status of the IRS investigation.

“That’s so egregious, for the tax collection agency of the United States to be in that kind of shape,” said Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.). “They have nobody to blame but themselves. I’d just like to see some accountability, you know?”

But even some Republicans acknowledge that the IRS controversy wasn’t quite the slam dunk case they thought it was two years ago, and House Republicans at least have seemed to put more emphasis on their investigation into the Benghazi attacks over the last year.

Still, Republicans aren't the only group frustrated by the IRS investigations – underscoring that the partisan divisions marking the inquiries aren’t going away, and that controversy will linger long after any reports are issued.

Tea Party groups say some organizations are still facing delays from the IRS, and that they believe Lerner and other agency officials are getting off easy. 

“It's clear the IRS would like this scandal to disappear,” Jordan Sekulow, whose American Center for Law and Justice represents dozens of groups challenging the IRS in court, said recently.

Congressional Democrats, though, say that two years’ worth of investigations, costing millions of taxpayer dollars, have found what they long suspected – that the IRS’s scrutiny of Tea Party groups was caused not by political bias, but by bureaucratic mismanagement.

The IRS itself says it took pride in a recent inspector general report that found the agency had cleaned up its act when processing tax-exempt applications. But the IRS, and their Democratic supporters, are also facing down budget cuts from Republicans who have shown no signs that they’ll forgive an agency which was unpopular even before Lerner’s apology two years ago.

John Koskinen, the IRS commissioner, has said that the roughly 10 percent budget cut – from $12.1 billion to $10.9 billion – the agency has absorbed in recent years has only hurt its ability to help taxpayers.

Koskinen said in a March speech that the improper scrutiny of Tea Party groups was “from a prior era,” and has urged Congress to allow the IRS to put that era to rest and provide more funding. "It’s not the IRS of 2010, 2011 or even 2012,” Koskinen said in the March speech.

Republicans themselves, frustrated especially by the Justice Department’s investigation into the IRS, have started focusing more heavily on preventing a “Lois Lerner 2.0” situation, as Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) calls it.

“Of course there’s not targeting going on right now, when the entire world is watching. It’s no surprise that they stopped the targeting for the time being,” said Roskam, the chairman of the House Ways and Means subcommittee overseeing the IRS. “But moving forward, the IRS hasn’t been able to demonstrate anything that it’s done to prevent the targeting from happening again.”

The Senate’s permanent subcommittee on investigations is the only panel to have rolled out a final report on the IRS’s handling of 501(c)(4) applications – and even that was notable largely for the split findings from former Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Roskam said he didn’t know whether Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who has made trade deals and tax reform his top priorities, would be interested in releasing a broad report on the committee’s IRS findings.

Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), a senior member of the House Oversight Committee, said much the same thing about his panel’s chairman, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah).

Jordan did note that the committee’s previous chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), released periodic reports on the IRS, including a broad final report in his last days atop the Oversight panel.

The Ohio Republican was far more confident that Justice Department investigators have never been serious about pressing criminal charges against anyone connected to the IRS, and knocked former Attorney General Eric Holder for declining to appoint a special prosecutor to look into the case.

Justice officials have said they want to complete their investigation “as expeditiously as possible.” But Republicans were also enraged last month when an outgoing U.S. attorney decided not to bring their contempt charges against Lerner to a grand jury.

“You’ve got all this history, and you’ve got the fundamental nature of the violation,” Jordan said. “I think it’s kind of natural to be skeptical about, well, 'everything’s fine now.' I do think there’s more to look into here.”

Republicans add that they’ll have to keep their focus on the IRS as long as it’s still working on new rules governing 501(c)(4) groups, after groups ranging from the Tea Party to the American Civil Liberties Union ripped the Obama administration’s first effort.

And while Republicans don’t want to speculate on when their IRS efforts might come to a close, Roskam dropped some hints that their interest in both the agency and Lerner won’t fade anytime soon.

“The statute of limitations doesn’t lapse until after the new administration comes in, so you could very easily see a newly constituted Justice Department having a new attitude about Lerner,” Roskam said.