WASHINGTON — President Obama's comments in a pre-Super Bowl interview about the tax exemptions of political groups have reignited the partisan debate on Capitol Hill over the Internal Revenue Service's role in policing political speech.
With IRS Commissioner John Koskinen testifying at a House subcommittee Wednesday for this first time since his confirmation in December, Republicans and Democrats argued anew over the IRS's admission last May that it improperly targeted Tea Party groups. On Sunday, Obama told Fox News the controversy came out of "bone-headed decisions" and "not even a smidgen of corruption" at the tax agency.
"This committee has actually investigated the matter, and found otherwise," said Rep. Charles Boustany, R-La., chairman of a tax oversight subcommittee. "The president's staff is either ill-informed or they are misleading him."
But Democrats say House Republicans are looking for a "smoking gun" to tie the IRS scandal to the president. "I suspect they found a smoking gun. It's a cap gun," said Rep. Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y.
Koskinen said all six of the formal investigations into the handling of tax-exempt groups are still ongoing: two each by House and Senate committees, and two others by the Treasury and Justice departments. "Another priority for our agency is to put to rest all of the issues and concerns surrounding applications for tax exemptions," he said, acknowledging that the revelations have "shaken public trust" in the IRS.
Congressional investigators have received more than 400,000 pages of documents from the IRS, but House Republicans say they still don't have key e-mails from former Exempt Organizations Director Lois Lerner, who has refused to testify to Congress and has since retired.
But Rep. Dave Camp, a Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said the direction to target Tea Party groups came from Washington as part of a concerted campaign to stifle political speech.
He said rules proposed by the Obama administration in November to limit the political speech of tax-exempt social welfare groups were intended to to shut down Tea Party groups.
"I want to be very clear, this committee will fight any efforts to limit the right of groups to organize," he said.
Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., said the committee was "beating a dead horse" and engaging in a "partisan witchhunt" and should instead focus on getting more low-income families to claim the Earned Income Tax Credit.
"It's clear you're trying to keep this issue alive for political purposes," said Rep. Sandy Levin, D-Mich.