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The IRS hearings: winners and losers

Everyone wants a piece of the Internal Revenue Service these days, which is why agency officials have been subjected to three congressional hearings over the past week.

So now that the dust has settled, who came out on top? Who didn't?

Below, we look at some of the winners and losers.

Winners

Steven Miller: The Acting Internal Revenue Service Commissioner resigned under fire and took heat during two hearings, but he repeatedly apologized and explicitly took responsibility for the agency's failure, even though he wasn't in direct control of the agency or tax-exempt unit during the period in question. In the long run, he may emerge unscathed - or at least less-scathed (is that a word?) than former IRS commissioner Douglas Shulman and IRS tax-exempt division head Lois Lerner.

J. Russell George: The Treasury Department inspector general for tax administration, a longtime tax watchdog who once worked for Bob Dole and used to hang out with Michelle Obama when they were students at Harvard, not only produced a blockbuster audit, but his conclusions stood up to scrutiny. He faced some criticisms for not informing the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee of his initial findings, but he correctly noted that he was only conducting an audit, not a full-scale investigation, which didn't require him to divulge his initial findings. He also noted, rightly, that sharing the information with Congress might have led to media leaks, something he was seeking to avoid.

Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif.: While most of his colleagues gave general statements of outrage and asked politically tinted questions, the California Republican congressman was the first to directly extract specific information from Miller during last week's House Ways and Means Committee hearing. It was Nunes who got Miller to first explain how the agency decided to have Lerner apologize for the agency's targeting of tax-exempt groups. That line of questioning was later picked up on by Reps. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., and Lynn Jenkins, R-Kan., who deserve honorable mention nods. It was revealed that Lerner effectively planted the question - a mere two days after declining to disclose the wrongdoing during testimony to a House subcommittee. Damage control, much?

Bipartisanship: Freshman Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., said it well on Wednesday: If there is a silver lining in the IRS's wrongdoing, it's that it has united Republicans and Democrats against a common enemy: that evil IRS. Many Democrats have joined with Republicans in asking very tough questions and offering some very tough words for the IRS officials, including House oversight committee Ranking Member Elijah Cummings, D-Md., Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., and Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa. True, a few Democrats have attempted to help the IRS defend itself or have focused on alleged GOP abuses of tax-exempt status, and Republicans have certainly been tougher with their questions. But both sides are on the same page much of the time, which is highly unusual these days.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif.: The House oversight committee chairman is a lightning rod for criticism from Democrats, who contend that he has used his subpoena power to engage in partisan witch hunts. But Issa was pretty measured in his conduct Wednesday, and even came off as magnanimous when he excused Lerner from the hearing following her Fifth Amendment plea. That move came despite the objections of some Republicans on the panel and later earned Issa the criticism of Rush Limbaugh. The fact is that Issa, perhaps for the first time, has the wide public support he needs for a thorough investigation of the Obama administration. And that's a big chance for him.

Tax reform: The House and Senate are both planning an ambitious effort to reform the tax code for the first time in a quarter century, and this week's hearings should add some immediacy to that effort. The complicated nature of the IRS's inner workings are now in full view, and it's not hard to see Americans clamoring for Congress to simplify the tax code and make the IRS less relevant. That doesn't mean it will get done - the odds are still long - but it does mean it's more likely.

Losers

Lois Lerner: We'll say at the outset that things could have gone worse for Lerner. Issa could have forced her to sit at the witness table Wednesday and repeatedly invoke her Fifth Amendment rights - a.k.a. "plead the Fifth" for the cameras. But Lerner's decision to plead the Fifth in the first place means she will be a - if not the - face of this scandal going forward. She pleaded the Fifth not because it was a good option, but because it was judged the least bad of two terrible options. And to top it off, she might even have inadvertently waived her Fifth Amendment right, in which case she could be compelled to appear before the committee again. Not good.

Douglas Shulman: Repeatedly offered the opportunity to take full responsibility for the scandal, he refused - and seemed physically unable to use the words "sorry" or "apologize." He took general responsibility, but refused to take full responsibility for the actions of underlings - even as Miller and Lerner had apologized. In an era in which voters expect contrition - and are often willing to forgive and forget - Shulman's refusal to give a full apology seemed odd throughout.

Logic: IRS officials and even the inspector general, for the entire week, stuck by two claims that are hard to fathom: first, that the IRS targeting of conservative groups wasn't politically motivated, and second, that despite the wrongdoing, there is no evidence of crimes being committed. To the average viewer, both of these are very difficult to swallow. Even tougher to understand is the IRS's inability - thus far - to explain how it is that conservative groups were targeted but liberal ones weren't if it wasn't political.

Public sector employees: The bad actions of a handful of Cincinnati-based IRS workers - and their higher-ups in Washington - only feed general perceptions of government employees as overpaid, misguided, unappreciative people who forget who they're working for. Several lawmakers and witnesses sought to separate the scandal from the hard work of other IRS and federal employees, but it likely won't work. In this day and age, perceptions mold quickly, and this will be a hard situation to overcome.

Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo.: Everybody on the House oversight committee wants to have their five minutes of fame, and Lummis got hers by claiming that the IRS scandal was "far worse than anything we've seen in Watergate." Lummis provided her own justification for this astoundingly premature claim - which she's hardly the first to flirt with. But the fact is that this doesn't really help GOP efforts to assure that they are not engaging in a witch hunt that leads directly to the White House. There are plenty of valid questions, and getting this far ahead of the facts isn't helpful.

The IRS hearings: winners and losers 05/23/13 [Last modified: Thursday, May 23, 2013 1:25pm]

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