WASHINGTON D.C. – Rep. Paul Ryan said on Friday that the hearing with the ousted head of the Internal Revenue Service on the agency’s targeting of conservative groups made at least one thing clear to legislators.
“The one answer we did get, though, is that the IRS withheld information from Congress,” the Wisconsin Republican told Jake Tapper on CNN. “We have many more questions that result from today’s hearing.”
A member of the House Ways and Means Committee, Ryan was among the many panel members from both parties who grilled Miller on the agency’s singling out of groups with the words “tea party” or “patriot” in their names when evaluating applications for tax-exempt status.
When Tapper asked whether Ryan received the answers he needed from Friday’s session, he responded, “actually, no.”
“Last year, we had these investigations in the Ways and Means Committee, we received all of these reports of this kind of harassment,” the 2012 vice presidential candidate said. “We questioned the IRS in hearings, in letters, and the IRS withheld all of this information that they were in possession of as to whether this targeting was occurring or not.
“We do now know this targeting did occur,” Ryan added. “That it was politically biased, it was only of conservative groups and now we’re getting lots of questions with respect to religious groups and other groups.”
In nearly four hours of testimony, Miller apologized for treating the conservative groups differently, calling it “horrible customer service.”
He said the treatment resulted from 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,” said Miller, who was forced out this week by the White House as a result of 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.”
Miller conceded that “foolish mistakes were made” by IRS officials trying to handle a deluge of groups seeking tax-exempt status.
But Rep. Dave Camp, who led Friday’s hearing, 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, a Michigan Republican, also said the fact that Miller and another top IRS official are stepping down does not solve the IRS’ problem.
“The reality is, this is not a personnel problem,” Camp said. “This is a problem of the IRS being too large, too powerful, too intrusive, and too abusive of honest, hardworking taxpayers.”
Camp’s remark about cover-ups drew a sharp retort from the committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Sander Levin, also of Michigan. Levin said if the hearing became a preview of the 2014 political campaigns, “we’ll be making a very, very serious mistake.”
Still, the bevy of scandals embroiling the White House in recent weeks could damage President Barack Obama politically, hurt his credibility, and make it harder for him to press a second-term agenda.
The administration has been forced on the defensive about the attack in Benghazi, Libya, last Sept. 11 that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, and the government’s seizure of telephone records from The Associated Press as part of a leaks investigation.
Friday’s IRS hearing is the first of what are expected to be many by congressional panels.
Underscoring the seriousness of the episode, Miller was sworn in as a witness, an unusual step for the House Ways and Means Committee and one that could put Miller in jeopardy if he is later shown to have misled lawmakers with his testimony.
Levin said the IRS’ 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.
In recent months, Republicans on the Ways and Means panel had repeatedly asked the IRS about complaints from conservative groups that their applications were being treated unfairly.
On Friday, numerous Republicans wanted to know why Miller and others never told them the groups were being targeted, even after May 2012, when the IRS has said Miller was briefed on the practice.
Miller had been a deputy commissioner whose portfolio included the unit that made decisions about tax-exempt status.
“I did not mislead Congress or the American people,” Miller told Rep. Charles Boustany Jr., R-La., one of several Republicans who challenged him about why he hadn’t mentioned the targeting in the past.
Miller also bristled at the use of the term “targeting” to describe the actions of the IRS zeroing in on conservatives, calling it a “loaded term” and a “pejorative term.”
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, “We have no evidence at this time to contradict that assertion,” but in prepared testimony to the committee, he said he was continuing to investigate the question.
George’s report concluded that the IRS office in Cincinnati, 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.
The report blamed “ineffective management” for letting IRS officials craft “inappropriate criteria” to review applications from tea party and other conservative groups, based on their names or political views.
It found the IRS took no action on many of the conservative groups’ applications for tax-exempt status for long periods of time, hindering their fundraising for the 2010 and 2012 elections.
Republicans have spent the past few days trying to link the IRS’ improper scrutiny of conservatives to Obama. The president has said he didn’t know about the targeting until last Friday, when Lerner acknowledged at a legal conference that conservative groups had been singled out.
Many of the groups were applying for tax-exempt status as social welfare organizations, which are allowed to participate in campaign activity if that is not their primary activity. The IRS judges whether that imprecise standard is met.
Attorney General Eric Holder has said the FBI was investigating whether the IRS may have violated applicants’ civil rights.
Obama has rejected the idea of naming a special prosecutor to investigate the episode, saying the investigations by Congress and the Justice Department were sufficient.
Obama has named Daniel Werfel, a top White House budget officer, to replace Miller.
Also on Thursday, Joseph Grant, one of Miller’s top deputies, said he would retire on June 3, according to an internal IRS memo.
He is commissioner of the agency’s tax-exempt and government entities division, which includes the agents that targeted tea party groups for additional scrutiny.
Grant joined the IRS in 2005 and took over as acting commissioner of the tax exempt and government entities division in December 2010. He was just named the permanent commissioner of the division on May 8.
When asked whether Grant was pressured to leave, IRS spokeswoman Michelle Eldridge said Grant had more than 31 years of federal service and it was his personal decision to leave.