Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
February 7, 2016

5 Takeaways From the Ways and Means IRS Hearing

(Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)

George, left, and Miller are sworn in before testifying at the Ways and Means Committee hearing. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)

On a rare Friday of congressional action, the first hearing was held to examine the IRS scandal involving the extra, and in some cases unprecedented, scrutiny given to conservative organizations that applied for tax-exempt status over a two-year period covering 2010 to 2012.

Acting IRS Commissioner Steven T. Miller was in the hot seat for nearly four hours, as the House Ways and Means Committee grilled him on how and why the federal tax-collecting agency appeared to inject politics into what is supposed to be an independent process. Miller, who will leave his job next month, was joined by Treasury Department Inspector General J. Russell George — he received a considerably more friendly reception.

As the hearing progressed, Ways and Means members slowly but surely veered into typical partisan camps. Republicans insisted that a political conspiracy was behind the IRS’ targeting of conservative groups. Democrats tried to walk a line between disapproval of the IRS’ actions, while defending the credibility of the IRS and accusing the GOP of using the scandal to undermine Obamacare, which requires the agency to hire thousands of new agents to police the new law.

Here are the top five takeaways from Friday’s hearing:

1. How little Miller knew. As the top official at the IRS, it made sense to call Miller to testify about the findings of the inspector general’s report, which found a clear case of bias against conservative groups. (The report also said it could not find evidence of a political motive behind that bias.) But as Republicans and even a few Democrats attempted to figure out how the IRS settled on a strategy that screened for conservative organizations, and not liberal groups, Miller repeatedly responded that he either did not know or could not remember. Who was responsible for what happened? Miller didn’t know. What was the timeline for how the policy unfolded? Miller couldn’t remember.

Further congressional hearings are scheduled for next week. Miller’s apparent ignorance of so many pertinent facts would suggest that maybe the committees getting the next crack at this might want to call other witnesses.

2. The IRS wasn’t targeting. Despite confirming that he accepts the inspector general’s report, which says that conservative organizations were “targeted,” Miller repeatedly corrected Republican committee members who asked him why such targeting took place. He said he rejects the idea that any “targeting” took place, saying he believes that word to be a “pejorative.” In fact, the GOP charges that targeting took place — backed up by the IG report — and Miller’s rejection of the term was a consistent theme throughout the hearing.

3. Democrats defend the IRS. Reaction to the IRS scandal has been unusual in that it has generated bipartisan outrage, particularly on the part of President Barack Obama. But as the hearing wore on Friday, Democrats increasingly laid the blame for what the inspector general discovered on the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which struck down some long-standing campaign finance prohibitions. Democrats also tried to tie responsibility for what happened to appointees of former President George W. Bush, while conversely defending the integrity of career civil service employees that make up the bulk of the IRS workforce. Finally, Democrats pushed back against Republican charges that the scandal proves that the IRS is not fit to take on enhanced powers to monitor whether Americans have health insurance, as mandated under the Affordable Care Act.

4. Last week’s supposedly unscripted admission. Under questioning, Miller revealed that last week’s seemingly impromptu admission by an IRS official that the agency had targeted conservative groups was in fact pre-cooked. Critics of the IRS immediately saw this as Miller and others at the IRS trying to give the Obama administration a heads-up about its findings, and wondered how long they knew about what the IG was likely to discover and how many within the government were similarly aware. Miller described the disclosure, which occurred after a planted question was asked during a question-and-answer session, as innocent.

5. Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Pa. Though clearly grandstanding during his designated hearing question time, Kelly delivered a broadside to Miller that channeled how many Americans feel about the IRS. A standing ovation erupted in the hearing room after Kelly, an automobile dealer by trade, was finished. Here’s a sampling of the tirade that earned Kelly applause and wide media attention since:

“I am more concerned today than I was before. The fact that you all can do just about anything you want to anybody. You know, you can put anybody out of business that you want anytime you want.”


“And when the IRS comes in, you’re not allowed to be shoddy, you’re not allowed to be run horribly, you’re not allowed to make mistakes, you’re not allowed to do one damn thing that doesn’t come in compliance. If you do, you’re held responsible right then.”


“This is absolutely an overreach and this is an outrage for all America!”

  • JC41

    I see! The disgraced head of the IRS assures us there was no “targeting”. So Roll Call simply agrees that this must be the case. Are you kidding? As for the Democrats blaming Citizen’s United, the biased screening here started in 2010 BEFORE Citizen’s United. It also started, it emerged in the hearing today, BEFORE any spike in the number of non-profit applications.

    • Dave

      Fact check.

      Citizens United was announced on January 21, 2010.

      The tidal wave of new 501(c)(4) applications followed thereafter, as did the controversial screening process.

  • Rick2340

    Looks like one of the democrat fascists wrote this article. Nice reporting.

  • JC41

    Jay Carney, speaking with the President’s approval, says the White House/State Department made “one stylistic change” to the Bengazi talking points. The head of the IRS says, under oath, that he did not deceive Congress when he denied the targeting of the Tea Party for over a year. Can any one remember a time when two such obvious lies were so brazenly promulgated by major figures in our government?

    • grumpy_old__man

      1. George W won the election

      2. There are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq

      • JC41

        Neither was a lie. George Bush did win the election. And the WMD was an ideological belief in serious error, in my view, not a lie (more akin to Obama saying that Obama care will drive down premiums). What I’m talking about are simple, obvious untruths, being denied with Orwellian rhetoric.

        • hepette

          you are a right wing uneducated person evidently. EVERYONE KNOWS THERE WERE NO WMDS…….get you r head out of the gutter

  • Just wondering

    #2 takeaway: The IRS wasn’t targeting.

    Explanation of #4 takeaway: “Miller revealed that last week’s seemingly impromptu admission by an IRS official that the agency had targeted conservative groups was in fact pre-cooked.”

    So if the IRS admitted they had targeted conservative groups, how did the author come up with a diametrically-opposed takeaway?

    Doesn’t Roll Call have any decent editors who can stop silly things before they’re published?

  • ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®©

    What a load of bull.

    =>From the Inspector General’s report on what happened, page 8:

    Figure 4 shows that approximately one-third of the applications identified for processing by the team of specialists included Tea Party, Patriots, or 9/12 in their names, while the remainder did not. According to the Director, Rulings and Agreements, the fact that the team of specialists worked applications that did not involve the Tea Party, Patriots, or 9/12 groups demonstrated that the IRS was not politically biased in its identification of applications for processing by the team of specialists.

    Look at how MANY of us fell for one more “pimp costume” story. <=

  • ApplePie101

    They’re scattered throughout this nation. They can and have destroyed
    lives. They’ve been used again and again for criminal purposes against
    innocent Americans. It’s time to repeal the constitutional amendment
    that allows it. Anything that can be used to cause so much harm should
    be banned. Yes, I am referring to the IRS.

  • Carl Goss

    Groups were targeted. No doubt. But the targeting was the result of so-called non-profits engaging in partisan activities as their primary activity. The IRS was certainly justified in going after such groups. The targeting was not done for ideological reasons. The GOP of course will spin things their way, but the IRS is being unfairly targeted itself in these hearings. I mean, if you have the word “party” as a name for your group, then there’s a strong probability that you are going to be engaging in partisan activity, The IRS has the duty to find out if that is primarily what your group is doing, and if so, to deny the tax exempt status your organization is looking for.

    Yes, there might have been poor management, but there was no attempt to target any group on the basis of anyone’s or any group’s ideology.

    Los Angeles

    • hepette

      The real scandal is not that the IRS made inquiries to ensure political groups
      were not benefiting improperly from 501(c)(4) status, it is that the agency
      fails to enforce the law even against the most blatant violators. Federal law
      states that these groups must operate “exclusively for purposes beneficial to
      the community as a whole,” but IRS regulations allow groups “primarily” engaged
      in social-welfare activities to take advantage of tax-exempt status. Based on
      this misreading of the law, many 501(c)(4) groups have interpreted this to mean
      they can spend up to 49 percent of their funds on political activities. Some
      groups, such as AAN, willfully violate even this standard with no apparent
      For example, in its 2010 501(c)(4) application to the IRS, AAN stated that it
      expected to spend less than 20 percent of its resources on political activities.
      Yet within days of receiving IRS approval, AAN acknowledged that it planned far
      greater political activity than it had represented. The group’s tax returns show
      that 66.8 percent of AAN’s total spending from July 2009 through June 2011 was
      used for political activity. By any definition, this is clearly over the
      percentage permitted by the tax code. CREW filed other complaints against
      Americans for Tax Reform, the Commission on Hope, Growth and Opportunity, and
      the American Future Fund, but there is no evidence the IRS acted on any of

  • mosco.a

    They got caught. Like Nixon. Obama and his apparatchiks were clearly using the power of government to harass, suppress and intimidate their opponents. And the last pretense of legitimacy to that core process is now shredded. Particularly in the context of this administration’s other power grabs, the tyrannical objectives and corruption are transparent. A corner has been turned in our collective understanding and there will be a reset. The main questions now are how and when.

Sign In

Forgot password?



Receive daily coverage of the people, politics and personality of Capitol Hill.

Subscription | Free Trial

Logging you in. One moment, please...