New IRS Commissioner Avoids Key Questions at Hearing

The House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Oversight held a public hearing today on the state of the IRS with new IRS Commissioner John Koskinen as the sole witness. The hearing marks Koskinen’s first appearance before Congress since his confirmation hearing in mid-December. Covering a broad range of topics, Koskinen repeatedly mentioned during today’s hearing that he is looking forward to working with both the Committee specifically and Congress more broadly in an effort to get all the facts from the six ongoing investigations on the IRS targeting scandal and, in doing so, restore the trust of the American people in the agency. “Public trust in the agency is critical,” Koskinen explained.  To wit, Representative Mike Kelly (R-PA) pushed back, saying, “They can’t trust us, and we’ve given them every reason not to.”

In his opening remarks, Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Charles Boustany (R-LA) captured the seriousness of Koskinen’s undertakings: “So, Commissioner Koskinen, the task before you is daunting. Your charge is to restore public confidence in the IRS, rid the agency of mismanagement, end political bias, and stop the hemorrhaging of taxpayer dollars to crooks and fraudsters. In this charge, the Ways and Means Committee is your friend, not your adversary. But Commissioner Koskinen, I cannot stress enough how important it is that we build a cooperative and productive relationship. You will serve as Commissioner for five years, so your relationship with the Committee on Ways and Means will be a long one. It can be a productive relationship, or it can be an adversarial relationship.”

Koskinen spoke well of his intentions with the agency, treading carefully in a difficult situation. In the wake of the IRS’s flagrant abuse of power by targeting right-leaning organization’s applying for tax-exempt status under Section 501(c)(4) of the tax code and the agency’s recent proposal of onerous and speech chilling regulations for 501(c)(4)’s, Koskinen seemed surprisingly unprepared for the hearing and even for his new position, admitting that he hadn’t read any of the over 400,000 pages of documents the IRS has given to Congress over the course of its investigation. With the stated goal of “looking forward,” Koskinen indicated that he doesn’t want to dwell in the past on issues that occurred before his time at the IRS, intending to improve the public’s perception of the agency through an effort to keep the IRS a strictly “apolitical” entity.

Democrats on the committee worked to steer the conversation away from the questions on the targeting scandal and the impending changes to 501(c)(4) regulations at all costs, from Representative Joseph Crowley (D-NY) accusing Republicans of looking for a “smoking gun” to connect the White House to the scandal to Crowley and other Democrats on the committee reiterating President Obama’s statement in a recent interview with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly that there was “not even a smidgen of corruption” with the IRS targeting of conservative-leaning groups. When Ranking Member Sander Levin (D-MI) flippantly claimed that there was “no indication that pulling these selected applications were politically motived,” Boustany interrupted, clarifying that investigations into the issue have not concluded and statements like Levin’s cannot be made with conviction. Representative Linda Sanchez (D-CA) took the road less travelled at the hearing, asking Koskinen questions about the Earned Income Tax Credit – a “real” issue, in her opinion – but not before belittling the Republicans’ effort to get answers about the scandal: “seems like we’re beating a dead horse” with a “partisan witch-hunt.”

Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee Dave Camp (R-MI) joined the hearing to follow up on his previous request for seven specific documents from the IRS regarding the proposed (c)(4) regulations. Camp argued that the potential regulations were falsely advertised as a cure in reaction to the uncovering of the targeting scandal. In reality, Camp noted that the Committee learned through its investigation that the regulations had been in the works for years while the targeting was occurring: “The regulations were [presented as a] remedy to the target[ing] when in fact they were being worked on in 2011,” Camp explained. Far from a remedy, the proposed regulations are merely a legal continuation of the targeting and silencing of social welfare groups. Camp informed Koskinen that the committee “will fight any efforts to stop the public from organizing,” noting that everyone has the right to speak and to educate the public regardless of their political views.

In the same vein as Camp’s lecture to Koskinen, the Republican line of questioning searched for answers to questions the IRS does not want to answer. Many of their questions were creatively avoided by a timid Koskinen whose answers seemed stuck on repeat: “looking forward to working with the committee.” Representative Erik Paulsen (R-MN) focused on the new 501(c)(4) regulations, pointing to the contradiction in the new rules that would prevent these groups from participating in nonpartisan activities like education and voting drives, activities certainly well within the realm of social welfare. Paulsen questioned Koskinen as to the wisdom of driving these groups out of public view and constraining their ability to speak freely. In answering, Koskinen continued his pattern of answering the questions by avoiding taking a concrete stance on the matter. Notably, Koskinen indicated that the over 21,000 comments on the public comment forum, which doesn’t closes until Thursday, February 27, represents a new record for the most comments the agency has received on a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. (Interested parties may comment to the IRS on the proposed rulemaking here).

While we strongly hope that Commissioner Koskinen will take the appropriate time to read the many IRS documents illuminating the details of the IRS targeting scandal, we further hope he remains true to his commitment to keep the IRS an “apolitical” agency. Given that the IRS’s proposed rulemaking for 501(c)(4)’s would further drag the embattled agency into the regulation of political speech, the Commissioner would be well-advised to strongly reconsider implementation of the proposed rules.

Regrettably, at this time, the Commissioner likely did little to restore the trust of the American people in a powerful government agency that has access to citizens’ sensitive financial and personal information, since no concrete commitment was made by Koskinen to assure citizens that the IRS will not restrict their speech or target them because of their political values and beliefs.

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