It was the Senate’s turn Tuesday to grill the Internal Revenue Service, or more accurately, former agency officials, about its handling of the scandal involving the targeting of conservative groups seeking tax exempt status.
Unlike last week, when House lawmakers got to beat up only on Steve Miller, until recently the IRS’ acting director whose “resignation” President Obama reported at a hastily called appearance before news cameras last week, this time Miller was joined by Douglas Shulman, the former commissioner who left that post in November. They were joined by J. Russell George, a Treasury Department inspector general whose recent report on the politically charged practices sparked outrage on the right and left.
From the start, a few things were readily apparent. Senators from both parties weren’t buying the men’s version of events, that they only found out about the by now notorious practices of the Cincinnati office relatively late.
Sen. Max Baucus, the Senate Democrat who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, started the interrogation.
Baucus asked Shulman: “What happened in Cincinnati? What — how’d that — what conditions caused that?”
To which Shulman, whose time leading the IRS from 2008 to 2012 fully encompassed the period when the problems occurred, said: “Mr. Chairman, I can’t say — I can’t say that I know that answer. I’m six months out of office…”
Baucus wasn’t letting Shulman off that easily. “Well… you’ve got some sense of the office. You were a commissioner for a good number of years. You’ve got some idea. You’ve thought about this.”
Shulman insisted that he’s been away from the agency since late last year, so he was clueless.
“Well, I’m kind of disappointed, frankly,” Baucus said. “Because you’ve got — you’ve had time to think about this, and you certainly have more thoughts than that.”
At one point, a Senate committee staffer who might have earned for himself a moment on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, could be seen behind a senator, visibly shaking his head in disbelief.
Senate Republicans were no less frustrated than Baucus. They pressed Shulman and Miller on how it was, exactly, that at the same time the GOP senators in the spring of 2012 were asking the men to address allegations by Tea Party groups that the IRS was targeting them for political reasons, the men denied knowledge of the dubious practices.
Shulman, who was appointed by President George W. Bush to the IRS post, got no quarter from Senate Republicans who showed varying degrees of unhappiness, from the grandfatherly disappointment of Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah to the prosecutorial chilliness of Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina.
Hatch spoke for many of his colleagues when he asked Shulman how it was that, after the then-IRS commissioner learned of the controversial targeting in May 2012 — even that there was a “be on the lookout” for list, or a BOLO — just weeks he told senators the IRS was doing no such thing, Shulman never followed up with a revision.
HATCH:“But you knew this was going on and you had represented that it was not going on, and then you found out that it was going on, and you never came to us and let us know what was going on.”
Shulman, a lawyer, gave a very lawyerly response:
SHULMAN:“I certainly don’t believe and I don’t have any memory of representing that this — that the BOLO list was not going on at a time that I knew it was going on.”
While Senate Democrats shared their Republican colleagues’ outrage, like House Democrats and President Obama they said the scandal proves that Congress should clarify the law that now permits organizations with 501 (c) (4) tax-exempt status to conduct political activities. Leaving it up to the IRS to decide just how much political activity is permissible is partly the reason the scandal happened in the first place, Democrats argue.
As at most hearings like Tuesday’s spectacle, part of the political show was about the senators wanting the disgraced witnesses to demonstrate adequate levels of contrition. For much of the hearing, the lawmakers seemed disappointed with what they were getting.
Eventually, they wrangled something resembling contrition from Shulman.
SHULMAN:“I certainly am not personally responsible for creating a list that had inappropriate criteria on it. And what I know, with the full facts that are out, is from the inspector general’s report, which doesn’t say that I’m responsible for that. With that said, this happened on my watch. And I very much regret that it happened on my watch.”
Close but no cigar, said Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican.
CORNYN: “Well, I don’t think that qualifies an apology. It qualifies as an expression of regret, which I think is well-deserved…”