Frequently asked questions about the Internal Revenue Service’s improper targeting of conservative groups.
Q: When did the possibility that the Internal Revenue Service was improperly targeting conservative groups first become public?
A: The first reports emerged in February 2012 on conservative websites like The Blaze. The New York Times first reported on the issue on March 6, 2012. “In recent weeks, the IRS has sent dozens of detailed questionnaires to Tea Party organizations applying for nonprofit tax status, demanding to know their political leanings and activities,” The Times wrote at the time.
Q: Why did the issue then remain quiet for more than a year?
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A: It was not yet clear in early 2012 that the IRS was specifically targeting conservative groups. Groups allied with the tea party made that accusation. But the issue remained clouded by a larger debate over politically oriented groups that seek nonprofit tax status. To receive such status, according to the IRS, a group must be “primarily engaged in the promotion of social welfare.” Such organizations can engage in some political activity “so long as, in the aggregate, these nonexempt activities are not its primary activities.” The standard for what constitutes a “primary” activity remains unclear, and many outside experts believe that political groups, on both the right and left, take advantage of the uncertainty.
Q: When did an official investigation of the IRS behavior begin?
A: Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, requested a formal audit by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration on June 28, 2012. It asked that the audit cover the IRS oversight of organizations applying for tax-exempt status. The inspector general’s staff met with Issa’s committee shortly thereafter, and the inspector general, J. Russell George, formally notified the lawmakers on July 11, 2012, that he had begun his audit. White House officials argue that both they and Republicans knew about the audit in 2012, but no one yet knew what it would conclude. It ultimately found that officials in the Cincinnati office acted wrongly and that higher-level IRS officials attempted to stop the inappropriate practices once they knew of them.
Q: Where does the matter go from here?
A: The biggest open questions involve whether any White House officials or other senior Obama administration officials had reason to suspect inappropriate behavior at the IRS in 2012 — or, even worse, had any role in influencing that behavior. Obama administration officials say they did not, and no evidence has yet emerged to the contrary. On Monday, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, and Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, the ranking Republican, sent a six-page letter with 41 questions to Steven T. Miller, the acting IRS commissioner who was forced out over the controversy. Those questions, which are to be answered by May 31, go well beyond the IRS to the question that Republicans have been hitting on for a week: Who in the Obama administration knew what and when?
Q: When will the next hearings be held?
A: A Senate Finance Committee hearing Tuesday will feature Douglas Shulman, a George W. Bush appointee and the last confirmed IRS commissioner, who headed the service during much of the targeting effort. Wednesday, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee holds its first hearing, which will include Lois Lerner, who headed the IRS division overseeing tax-exempt organizations and who tried to shape and temper the targeting effort. Members of the committee have accused Lerner of having lied to them about the effort. Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal Wolin is also scheduled to testify Wednesday, making him the first Obama administration official to answer questions before Congress on the matter.