WASHINGTON — The ousted head of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) apologized to Congress on Friday for his agency’s tougher treatment of tea-party and other conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status. He called the treatment a misguided effort to handle a flood of applications, not political bias.
“I want to apologize on behalf of the Internal Revenue Service for the mistakes that we made and the poor service we provided,” Steven Miller, who has been acting IRS commissioner, told the House Ways and Means Committee as the panel held Congress’ first hearing on the scandal. “The affected organizations and the American public deserve better. Partisanship and even the perception of partisanship have no place at the Internal Revenue Service.”
At a hearing that saw lawmakers from both parties harshly criticize his agency, Miller conceded that “foolish mistakes were made” by IRS officials trying to handle a flood of groups seeking tax-exempt status. He said the process that resulted in conservatives being targeted, “while intolerable, was a mistake and not an act of partisanship.”
Though Miller and another top IRS official are stepping down, the chairman of the committee said that would not be enough.
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“The reality is this is not a personnel problem. This is a problem of the IRS being too large, too powerful, too intrusive and too abusive of honest, hardworking taxpayers,” said Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich.
Camp also said the tougher examinations that conservative groups encountered seemed to be part of a “culture of cover-ups and intimidation in this administration.” He offered no other examples.
Camp’s remark about cover-ups drew a sharp retort from the committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan. Levin said if the hearing became a preview of the 2014 political campaigns, “we’ll be making a very, very serious mistake.”
The administration has been forced on the defensive about September’s terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans, and the government’s seizure of The Associated Press’ telephone records as part of a terrorism-related leaks investigation.
Republicans are hoping to link the issues in an effort to raise questions about President Obama’s credibility and make it harder for him to press his second-term agenda.
Friday’s hearing is the first of many expected on the subject by congressional panels.
When the hearing ended after nearly four hours, Camp said, “I promise the American people, this investigation has just begun.”
Levin said the IRS’s mistreatment of conservative groups meant the agency “completely failed the American people.” He said Lois Lerner, who heads the IRS division that makes decisions about tax-exempt groups, should be “relieved of her duties.”
Miller said the IRS struggled to efficiently handle growing numbers of applications for tax-exempt status.
The agency has said that between 2008 and 2012, the number of groups applying for tax-exempt status as so-called social-welfare groups more than doubled. Along with that was an increase in complaints that such groups were largely engaging in electoral politics, which is not supposed to be their primary activity.
“I do not believe partisanship motivated the people” at the IRS who engaged in the harsher screening for conservative groups, Miller said.
Also testifying Friday was J. Russell George, the Treasury Department’s inspector general for tax administration.
In a report he issued this week, George said IRS officials reported they were not politically pressured to target conservative groups. Asked about that conclusion, George said Friday, “We have no evidence at this time to contradict that assertion,” but in prepared testimony to the committee, he said he is continuing to investigate that question.
George’s report concluded that the IRS office in Cincinnati, Ohio, which screened applications for the tax exemptions, improperly singled out tea-party and other conservative groups for tougher treatment. The report says the practice began in March 2010 and lasted more than 18 months.