Inside the Beltway, perhaps no event this week captured more attention than the ongoing Internal Revenue Service scandal, which both political parties have been quick to highlight as an example of government overreach.
One of the central figures is Lois Lerner, the now-former director of the IRS exempt organizations division. Lerner’s office targeted some conservative-leaning groups for additional scrutiny and delayed their applications for tax exempt status, which has brought a firestorm from congressional leaders.
Lerner has definitely sidestepped the truth in some of her statements. Meanwhile, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., took the IRS scandal and ran with it, incorrectly trying to tie it to President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, colloquially known as “Obamacare.”
For distorting facts and trying to mislead the American people, Lerner and Bachmann win the Whopper of the Week, a distinction given out by the Washington Guardian to examples of misstatements, half-truths and false political points.
In video that has been played over and over on television this week, Lerner refused to testify before House and Senate committees investigating the IRS. Instead, she invoked her Fifth Amendment right to not testify on the grounds she would incriminate herself.
That hasn’t stopped Lerner from trying to defend herself. Nor did it stop her from issuing an opening remark before a House Oversight and Government Reform committee hearing – a move that has congressional leaders deciding if she waived her Fifth Amendment rights, which would allow Congress to compel her to testify.
Lerner has also tried to answer some questions from reporters, and talked about the issue at length during a May meeting at the American Bar Association.
“I think you guys were reading the paper as much as I was. So it was pretty much we started seeing information in the press that raised questions for us, and we went back and took a look,” Lerner told a reporter, arguing she learned about the scandal from news reports this year and not before.
Federal investigators completely disagree with her. A report by the Treasury Department’s Office of Inspector General first broke the details of the IRS actions to the public. And it showed that Lerner knew about the problems for almost two years before they came to light. According to a timeline put together by the IG, Lerner first heard of the controversy in June 2011.
Lerner has blamed the heavy workload and increased number of applications for tax-exempt status by 501(c)(4) groups.
“Many of these organizations applying more than doubled, about 1,500 in 2010 and over 3,400 in 2012,” she said.
It’s difficult to know if Lerner meant calendar year or the fiscal year used by the government. The number of applicants has certainly risen, especially following the Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court that freed tax-exempt groups to become more engaged in policy and politics.
The IG shows that for fiscal years, the increase was actually 1,735 in 2010 to 3,357 in 2012. Not exactly double, and it shows Lerner is rounding judiciously to try to prove her point.
And the bulk of the increase has come in the past two years – long after the IRS targeting started in 2010.
Lerner, who this week was placed on leave, is also arguing that she did not disclose the targeting publicly because she was never asked about it.
“I don’t believe anyone ever asked me that question before,” she told a reporter.
But she was asked about it point blank by a U.S. congressman, just two days before she announced the IRS actions publicly.
“Ms. Lerner, if you could comment briefly on the status of the IRS investigation into these political not-for-profits,” said Rep. Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y., at a House Ways and Means subcommittee hearing.
The embattled IRS official sidestepped the question, stating there was a “questionnaire out there you can look at on our website” that was “seeking information” from the organizations about their political activities.
“So that’s our beginning,” she concluded.
The IRS scandal has come at a rough time for the Obama administration, which is also dealing with controversies over the Justice Department’s collection of journalists’ phone records and ongoing probes into its handling of the Sept. 11 attacks in Benghazi.
Some Republicans have been quick to blame the Democratic administration for the IRS woes, but one, Rep. Michele Bachmann, has stretched the fact.
“There’s a huge national database that’s being created right now,” Bachmann told Fox News. “Your health care, my health care, all the Fox viewers health care, their personal, intimate, most close-to-the-vest secrets will be in that database, and the IRS is in charge of that database? So the IRS will have the ability potentially…to deny health care, to deny access, to delay health care.”
She followed it up a few days later speaking to ABC News and Yahoo!
“When people realize that their most personal, sensitive, intimate, private health-care information is in the hands of the IRS that’s been willing to use people’s tax information against political opponents of this administration, then people have pause and they pull back in horror,” Bachmann said.
Bachmann is trying to raise a specter of politically motivated healthcare decisions – but that’s not what’s happening.
Yes, the IRS will have an increased role in overseeing healthcare tax credits. It was central to the Supreme Court ruling upholding the law that charging penalties to citizens that don’t have health insurance is essentially a tax. That means the IRS is now in charge of administering this tax.
But no special powers were granted to the IRS, and it will have no role in deciding matters of health or care. And the database Bachmann references isn’t going to be collecting taxpayers’ personal information.
The issue even came up during the House’s grilling of former acting IRS commissioner Steven Miller.
REP. JIM MCDERMOTT: The IRS can’t access your medical files. Is that true, Mr. Miller?
MILLER: Correct, sir.
MCDERMOTT: They cannot find out your private medical information.
MILLER: That’s correct, sir.
MCDERMOTT: Their job in Obamacare is simply to collect financial information on which a determination is made as to whether somebody can get a subsidy for their premiums. Is that correct?
MILLER: Were you covered and over what period is what we would be getting.
So while the Affordable Care Act might cause more work for the IRS, it hasn’t given it any powers over deciding life and death.