Outgoing Acting IRS Director Grilled By House Lawmakers

The House Ways and Means Committee became the first oversight panel in Congress to weigh in on the IRS tax-exempt group controversy on Friday morning.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

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And I'm Melissa Block. Steven Miller may be out of a job, but he still got a televised flaying today on Capitol Hill. Miller was the acting IRS commissioner until he was forced to resign this week because of inappropriate scrutiny of conservative groups by his agency. In a hearing today, House Republicans said the situation undermines fundamental values. Here's Kevin Brady of Texas.

REP. KEVIN BRADY: The broader question here, is this still America?

BLOCK: NPR's Peter Overby has the story.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: The 39 members of the House Ways and Means Committee quickly agreed on adjectives for the IRS conduct: outrageous, unacceptable, inexcusable, offensive. Ways and Means chairman David Camp tied the targeting to other recent IRS problems.

REP. DAVID CAMP: Trimming a few branches will not solve the problem when the roots of the tree have gone rotten. And that is exactly what has happened with our entire tax system. It is rotten at the core and it must be ripped out so we can start fresh.

OVERBY: But in this specific case, there wasn't much new to investigate, especially with just a week to prepare. The Treasury inspector general for tax administration published his audit report earlier this week. The Justice Department has opened an investigation and today's main witness, acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller, has already resigned under pressure from the White House.

Miller apologized both for the low-level decisions to focus on conservative groups as a way to deal with the big backlog of applications and also for the higher level failure to stop it. He said the agency was wrong to demand lists of donors and ask other intrusive questions but Miller would not apologize for asking about applicants' political activities.

The groups were seeking a tax exemption that would permit a limited amount of political activity and Miller said the tax agency takes that seriously.

STEVEN MILLER: Politics is an area where we always ask more questions. It is our obligation under the law to do so.

OVERBY: At times, Miller sounded like someone freed from the bureaucratic shackles that usually inhibit committee witnesses. He rejected repeated accusations that he should've clued in Congress earlier as the IRS tried to get the targeting problem under control. Here he was questioned by Louisiana Republican Charles Boustany.

REP. CHARLES BOUSTANY: Why did you mislead Congress and the American people on this?

MILLER: Mr. Chairman, I did not mislead Congress nor the American people. I answered the questions as they were asked.

OVERBY: Miller did confirm something a lot of people in Washington had suspected. He said the head of the exempt organization section planned ahead of time to acknowledge the targeting at a meeting of tax lawyers last Friday morning. When she did that, her apology ignited the controversy just days before the inspector general's report came out.

Some committee Republicans tried to build a political conspiracy around the targeting, but the committee's ranking Democrat, Sander Levin of Michigan, put the question to Inspector General J. Russell George, the only other witness.

REP. SANDER LEVIN: Did you find any evidence of political motivation in the selection of the tax exemption applications?

J. RUSSELL GEORGE: We did not, sir.

OVERBY: The basic argument for Republicans was outrage at what had happened in such a powerful federal agency. Pennsylvania Republican Mike Kelly addressed Miller.

REP. MIKE KELLY: Where you're sitting, you should be outraged, but you're not. The American people should be outraged and they are.

OVERBY: Kelly then spoke to the audience in the hearing room. It included many Tea Party members and other conservatives.

KELLY: I just think the American people have seen what's going on right now in their government. This is absolutely an overreach and this is an outrage for all America. I yield back.

OVERBY: Two more committees, one in the Senate and one in the House, have IRS hearings scheduled for next week. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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