A few thoughts on round one of today's House Oversight Committee's IRS hearings:
(1) Right out of the gate, Democrats' top priority was attacking Chairman Issa -- accusing him of overreaching and conducting committee business in an overly partisan manner. Ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings also asserted his desire to "get to the bottom" of the IRS scandal, intoning that he's seeking, "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." But just last month, he called the IRS affair "solved." Rep. Gerry Connolly, a liberal from Virginia, spent his entire question period upbraiding Issa and launching pre-emptive strikes against the Inspector General, who will testify later. He did not ask a single question of the witnesses. Democrats also launched broadsides against Mitch McConnell and Marco Rubio over statements those Senators have made about the IRS.
(2) One of today's witnesses was Carter Hull, who worked at the agency for 48 years before recently retiring. He was based in DC. Hull came across as an old-school, no-nonsense guy, and was very careful in his answers. Hull testified that he was given two critical Tea Party "test case" applications at the beginning of the targeting process. He recommended that one group be approved and the other be denied tax exempt status. Management stripped him of both cases, ignored his recommendations, and handed the applications over to a brand new employee with virtually no experience in the field. Hull said his supervisor told him the cases would be kicked up the chain into the IRS chief counsel's office. (The head of that office is an Obama appointee who met personally with the president in 2011, after his office got involved in the targeting process). Hull told the committee that senior management wanted to group all Tea Party-type groups together and develop a form letter to send to all such applicants, rather than considering each case on the merits. Hull advised against that course of action, but his opinion went unheeded. Hull characterized IRS management's actions throughout this entire case as "unusual."
(3) The other first-round witness was Elizabeth Hofacre, a Cincinnati-based IRS veteran of 14 years. She testified that hearing statements from Lois Lerner and White House spokesman Jay Carney blaming the improper targeting on "rogue" and "line" employees in her regional office felt like a "nuclear strike." She said she believes senior agency officials were trying to blame her for carrying out their orders, and expressed the opinion that Lois Lerner was intentionally trying to mislead the public in advancing that narrative. Hofacre said she was assigned dozens of Tea Party applications, all of which were delayed by her superiors. She eventually became so frustrated with the situation that she transferred divisions. Long after she left, many of her Tea Party cases remained in a "holding pattern" and unresolved. An important point:
#IRS witness Hofacre says delays in Tea Party, et al applications were worse than rejections b/c there was no opportunity to appeal.— Stephen Hayes (@stephenfhayes) July 18, 2013
(4) The best Republican performers were Ohio's Jim Jordan and South Carolina's Trey Gowdy. Jordan engaged both witnesses with focused, rapid-fire questions, leading to some of the information discussed above. Gowdy cataloged the morphing excuses and explanations offered up by IRS management and their political abettors. He also noted that screening groups for political behavior to determine tax status isn't new -- it's been going on for decades on a case-by-case basis. That was standard operating procedure. What makes this situation a scandal were the blanket targeting and delays directed at an entire class of organizations, all of which just happened to be on one side of the political spectrum (the opposite end of the current administration's).
(5) Democrats flogged several points -- beyond the generic attacks on Issa and Republicans, that is. First, that the targeting wasn't politically motivated. This is what many witnesses have said, but it doesn't pass the common sense test. A large majority of Americans understand the political nature of the abuse. Second, new evidence "proves" that liberal groups were also targeted -- an assertion that relies on a totally false equivalency. (This also glosses over the distinction between 501(c)3 and (c)4 organizations). Third, that none of the witnesses they've engaged have stated (or admitted) personal knowledge of interference or direction from the White House or the Obama campaign. These members seemed to think it is somehow dispositive that low-to-mid-level IRS employees weren't personally given marching orders directly from David Axelrod. It's a specious point. Finally, committee Democrats previewed their blistering critiques of the Inspector General, who will testify later today. They will accuse him of cherry-picking facts, carrying water for Republicans, and withholding important information. The IG, Russell George, will defend himself, and Republicans will come to his aid -- even though they've been critical of him on other points. Round two is going to get ugly.
I'll leave you -- for now -- with Chairman Issa's USA Today op/ed explaining why new information definitively ties the IRS scandal to Washington, DC (which the IRS initially denied), and his opening statement from this morning's hearing: