By Sam Baker - 10/09/13 09:05 PM EDT
House Republicans accused the IRS on Wednesday of illegally sharing confidential tax information with political officials at the White House.
Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee questioned whether Sarah Hall Ingram, the head of the Internal Revenue Service's Affordable Care Act Office, shared private tax information with top healthcare officials in the Obama administration.
Hall Ingram testified before the committee Wednesday after spending months in the GOP’s sights. Before taking over the IRS’s ObamaCare office, she led the office accused of improperly scrutinizing the tax-exempt status of Tea Party organizations.
Republicans have sought to link the IRS scandal to the tax agency’s role in implementing and enforcing the Affordable Care Act, and committee members trained their criticism on Hall Ingram during Wednesday’s hearing.
"Now, under the Affordable Care Act, Americans have to give personal information to the IRS — to the same lady, the same organization, that potentially, at least by someone's definition, shared all kinds of personal information with the White House political people,” Jordan charged.
Several Democratic committee members mocked the hearing and accused Republicans of tarnishing a 30-year civil servant who received a commendation from former President George W. Bush.
“You know, if you were at all involved with Benghazi, we would have hit the GOP trifecta: the IRS, the Affordable Care Act and Benghazi,” Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) said.
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) compared the proceeding to the Salem witch trials, asking Hall Ingram whether she had “been consorting with the devil.”
Hall Ingram said she does not believe she has ever violated the law prohibiting the release of tax records and that she was “not conscious of ever sharing [confidential] information with anyone at the White House.”
Committee Republicans released email exchanges between the White House and the IRS about the contraception mandate in President Obama’s signature healthcare law. The IRS redacted parts of the document, citing the section of federal law that prohibits the release of confidential tax records.
Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said that if the redacted information could not be shared with Congress because of confidentiality protections, it also should not have been available to political appointees at the White House.
The emails show Jeanne Lambrew, a White House adviser on healthcare, seeking technical guidance from IRS officials, including Hall Ingram, about the mechanics of tax filings for certain types of religious organizations.
The administration was apparently trying to figure out the logistics of a plan to grant religious organizations an "accommodation" from the contraception mandate.
The White House exempted churches and houses of worship from the mandate and offered a middle ground to religious-affiliated employers, such as the Catholic universities that sued over the mandate.
Republicans also pressed Hall Ingram over accusations that the IRS office in charge of tax exemptions singled out Tea Party groups for additional scrutiny.
Although Hall Ingram led the office for part of the time the targeting was said to occur, she said had no knowledge of political groups being singled out and was not involved in setting the procedures for reviewing tax-exemption applications.
"I am not familiar enough with exactly what happened," she said, but "I was upset at the way activities were described."
She said she had “no recollection of hearing about the activities” cited in a report about the scrutiny of political groups. For much of the time she was listed as the director of the tax-exemption office, her day-to-day work was already dominated by healthcare.
And the IRS’s share of ObamaCare implementation is going well, Hall Ingram testified.
The Health and Human Services Department has faced widespread technical problems while rolling out the website to enroll in the law’s new coverage options. Consumers have been unable to access the site, healthcare.gov, and the department has taken it offline multiple times to make improvements.
But the IRS hasn’t faced similar problems, Hall Ingram said.
"The responsibilities that were assigned to the IRS — we planned, we built, we turned it on, and it’s working,” she said.
Hall Ingram said a key piece of the healthcare law’s new infrastructure — the federal “data hub” — is working well.
When consumers apply for insurance and tax subsidies through an exchange, the exchange uses the data hub to draw information from several state and federal agencies to confirm applicants’ identity and calculate the subsidies they can receive.
Exchanges have successfully pinged the IRS's servers to request income information about applicants, and the IRS has been able to respond, she said.
"As far as we can tell, and we are looking on a daily basis, it's operating well," Hall Ingram said.