Trump nominee vows to restore 'trust' in IRS

Trump nominee vows to restore 'trust' in IRS
© Greg Nash

President TrumpDonald John TrumpCould Donald Trump and Boris Johnson be this generation's Reagan-Thatcher? Merkel backs Democratic congresswomen over Trump How China's currency manipulation cheats America on trade MORE’s nominee to lead the IRS pledged in his confirmation hearing on Thursday to restore "trust" in the agency.

"If I am privileged to serve as commissioner, my overriding goal will be to strengthen and rebuild the trust between the IRS, the American people and their representatives in Congress," IRS Commissioner nominee Chuck Rettig told the Senate Finance Committee.

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"That trust is critical to all that the IRS does, particularly as it works with the Department of Treasury to implement once-in-a-generation tax-reform legislation enacted by Congress last year."

Senators from both parties pressed Rettig to keep the agency free from political interference, and he in turn vowed to run the IRS in an "impartial and unbiased manner."

“I would hope that the members of this committee and the American taxpayers see me as staunchly independent,” he told the lawmakers.

The issue of the IRS’s impartiality has been a top concern for both Republicans and Democrats. Republicans have been critical of the agency following revelations in 2013 that officials submitted conservative groups’ applications for tax-exempt status to extra scrutiny. And Democrats are worried that the IRS under the Trump administration may be making decisions for political reasons.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchTrump to award racing legend Roger Penske with Presidential Medal of Freedom Trump awards Presidential Medal of Freedom to economist, former Reagan adviser Arthur Laffer Second ex-Senate staffer charged in aiding doxxing of GOP senators MORE (R-Utah) directly asked Rettig if he would lead the agency impartially, noting that there have been concerns about political bias in the IRS for decades.

Rettig replied “absolutely.”

Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenDemocrat: Treasury 'acknowledged the unprecedented process' in Trump tax return rejection Hillicon Valley: Twitter says Trump 'go back' tweet didn't violate rules | Unions back protests targeting Amazon 'Prime Day' | Mnuchin voices 'serious concerns' about Facebook crypto project | Congress mobilizes on cyber threats to electric grid Top Democrat demands answers on election equipment vulnerabilities MORE (Ore.), the Finance Committee's top Democrat, said in his opening statement that it was particularly important for Rettig to demonstrate his independence from the White House because he owns units in a Trump-branded property in Hawaii.

“Certainly, if you want to eliminate any questions about appearances, you can sell the properties off,” he said.

But Hatch dismissed the notion that Rettig’s independence could be compromised by his ownership in the property, which Rettig bought in 2006.

“Any suggestion that there is a conflict of interest here is the stuff of conspiracy theories,” he said.

Wyden also pressed Rettig about comments that Vice President Pence made in May that the Trump administration would no longer enforce the so-called Johnson amendment, which prohibits churches and other tax-exempt nonprofits from endorsing political candidates.

Wyden asked Rettig who would be in charge of the IRS if confirmed.

“If I am confirmed, I will be in charge of the Internal Revenue Service and will make sure that the Internal Revenue Service moves forward, follow the law, in an impartial, unbiased manner,” Rettig assured lawmakers.

Sen. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseHillicon Valley: Trump seeks review of Pentagon cloud-computing contract | FTC weighs updating kids' internet privacy rules | Schumer calls for FaceApp probe | Report says states need more money to secure elections Senate passes bill making hacking voting systems a federal crime Overnight Energy: Scientists flee USDA as research agencies move to Kansas City area | Watchdog finds EPA skirted rules to put industry reps on boards | New rule to limit ability to appeal pollution permits MORE (D-R.I.) also asked Rettig if he’s been asked to take a loyalty pledge to the administration. Rettig said no.

Lawmakers also pressed Rettig on how he would implement specific tax laws.

Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezPompeo changes staff for Russia meeting after concerns raised about top negotiator's ties: report Dem senators demand GOP judicial group discloses donors Senate passes .5B border bill, setting up fight with House MORE (D-N.J.) asked about the IRS’s plans to issue guidance on state workarounds to the new $10,000 cap on the state and local tax deduction (SALT).

The IRS signaled in May that it may not allow such workarounds, which involve allowing taxpayers to make charitable donations to state and local funds and receive credits against their state and local taxes. States designed the workarounds to allow taxpayers to be able to deduct the donations on their federal tax returns as charitable contributions.

Menendez said he doesn’t want to see the IRS “weaponized” against his home state, which has enacted a SALT cap workaround, when it has previously approved similar charitable donation and tax credit programs states enacted for other reasons.

Rettig said he will follow the law impartially and that no one should presuppose his stance on any issue. But he also said that, based on what he’s read in the press, the SALT cap workarounds “could be not on all fours” with a position the IRS has taken in the past.

Senators also asked Rettig about a host of other top challenges facing the IRS, including funding and workforce challenges, outdated technology and a need to prevent identity theft.

Rettig told lawmakers he wants to work with Congress to improve the agency’s customer services and information technology.

“We cannot fall into a trap of viewing the challenges the IRS faces as facts of life, but we must work together to solve them,” he said.

Republican Sens. Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyNSA improperly collected US phone records in October, new documents show Overnight Defense: Pick for South Korean envoy splits with Trump on nuclear threat | McCain blasts move to suspend Korean military exercises | White House defends Trump salute of North Korean general WH backpedals on Trump's 'due process' remark on guns MORE (Pa.) and Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottGraham: Every Republican president or nominee 'will be accused of being a racist' Sanford calls for 'overdue conversation' on debt as he mulls Trump challenge The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump digs in ahead of House vote to condemn tweet MORE (S.C.), who were key players in authoring the tax law, pressed Rettig on how he would implement the tax law Trump signed in December.

“If confirmed, the Internal Revenue Service will follow the law … with what Congress intended in putting it into the law,” Rettig said.

Rettig is a California tax lawyer who has decades of experience representing taxpayers in disputes with the IRS. He’s also been active in a number of professional organizations for tax lawyers and is well-respected by other tax professionals.

Rettig appears likely to be confirmed. While Democrats asked Rettig some tough questions, lawmakers in both parties, particularly Republicans, thanked Rettig for being willing to take on the task of leading an often-disliked agency with many challenges.

Hatch said he thinks Rettig is “very capable” of making the IRS the best it can be.

“I thank you for your willingness to get involved in this area, which is not without controversy," Sen. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinCan new US Strategy on Women, Peace & Security give women a real seat at the table? Ask Afghan women Maryland lawmakers slam 'despicable' Trump remark about journalists on newsroom shooting anniversary Democrats leery of Sanders plan to cancel student loan debt MORE (D-Md.) told Rettig.

If confirmed, Rettig would serve the remainder of a five-year term that ends in November 2022.