Wednesday, May 22, 2013 | 6:40 p.m.
Rep. Darrell Issa has been waiting for a scandal like the Internal Revenue Service’s selective targeting of conservative groups to come along.
For the last two and a half years, the House of Representatives’ Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman spearheaded investigations into everything from Obamacare to Solyndra to Benghazi — but could never secure enough bipartisan support to make allegations of gross misconduct stick.
Now, evidence that political bias governed the IRS’ decisions on tax-exempt status is giving Issa and Oversight Committee Republicans a chance to say: “I told you so.”
But it is also putting committee Democrats like Nevada’s Rep. Steven Horsford in the potentially awkward position of needing to express rage toward an administration they also champion.
“I asked to be on this committee,” Horsford said in an interview Wednesday, slyly grinning before he jokingly added: “Sucker.”
Horsford and other members of the Oversight Committee got a chance to grill current and former IRS administrators, the agency’s inspector general, and the deputy secretary of the Treasury Department Wednesday.
It was an occasion for which Horsford said he tried to take off his Democrat hat, as he usually does when entering the Oversight Committee ring — punctuating that gesture with a reminder that “focusing on groups because of their political beliefs was wrong” whether the group in question was the NAACP, Greenpeace, or the Tea Party.
“Regardless of which party holds power, this behavior has to stop,” Horsford said during the hearing.
Yet on the other side of the aisle, many lawmakers seemed much more keen to link the IRS behavior to a different narrative — that of the Obama administration, and its various faults, as viewed by the Republicans.
“This administration, which told us and told the American people that the attack that killed four Americans in Benghazi … was caused by a video, is now the same administration who expects us to believe this scandal was just the result of two rogue agents in Cincinnati,” said Jim Jordan, who chairs the Oversight subcommittee that handles regulatory affairs. “The people don’t buy it.”
Horsford says he doesn’t mind the criticism of the Obama administration, but making connections like Jordan’s rankle him.
“Unfortunately there are some members of the committee that try to go there and make it about something that it’s not,” Horsford said. “Sometimes they go on a rampage that just isn’t there.”
Horsford was quick to add that he doesn’t lump all Republicans together in that category.
“The majority of the members really do want to get at how can we make this work better,” he said. “I’ll give credit to Mr. Lankford — he’s a Republican from Oklahoma, he has his viewpoint, but he’s also been willing to listen … so that both perspectives can be heard to get the facts.”
Even Rep. James Lankford, however, couldn’t help but draw connections Wednesday between the IRS scandal and other unrelated Obama policies.
“Man, that sounds like Keystone to me,” Lankford said, comparing the IRS habit of burying conservative tax-exempt applicants in paperwork to Obama’s delayed verdict on the cross-country Keystone XL oil pipeline.
Horsford says he’s not opposed to talking through each of these topics.
“I’m not a defender of every federal program or agency. There are times that they mess up and people need to be held accountable,” Horsford said. “I wouldn’t say one is more important than the other — look, four people died in Benghazi. In the IRS, people lost some confidence, people had to wait a little longer to get a determination, but no one was killed under the IRS.”
Still, agreeing with Republicans that there are problems to be investigated does not equate to agreeing that the scandals are a scourge on the Obama administration. Horsford thinks the most egregious point of the Benghazi scandal isn’t the alleged government cover-up, but a lack of resources to hire embassy security that was exacerbated by budget cuts Republicans pressed for. In the IRS matter, he sees the greatest fault not in a purported climate of political corruption that runs right up to the White House, but in a lack of clarity about how much political activity nonprofit groups may engage in before they are considered “too political” for tax exempt status.
“How is it you can have a federal law that says ‘exclusively’ but agency standards say ‘primarily?’” Horsford said, pointing out a definition discrepancy in the level of social welfare activity a group needs to claim to be eligible for tax-exempt status. He suggested the IRS, or Congress, adopt “a clear, bright-line test” to clarify the situation.
But Horsford doesn’t see his approach as being defensive of the administration.
“I asked to be on this committee because I wanted to have the ability to offer my suggestions on behalf of the constituents I serve in order to make the federal government work better,” he said. “I respect the ranking member Mr. [Elijah] Cummings, because he will say: ‘It doesn’t matter if the administration is at fault, if that’s where the facts lead then that’s where the facts lead.’”
“The timing is definitely not good, the fact that all of these things happened to unfold at the same time,” Horsford continued. “But when you separate each one individually and look at the facts of each … we can find out whether there’s something wrong.”