The brouhaha over the IRS's targeting of Tea Party–aligned tax-exempt applicants was already quieting down before Edward Snowden's National Security Agency leaks grabbed Washington's attention. But the IRS scandal hasn't gone away; the drama has just moved from the headlines and congressional hearing rooms to the back rooms of the House government oversight committee.
On Tuesday, the simmering fight between the committee's top two members, Republican chairman Darrell Issa (Calif.) and ranking Democrat Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), came out into the open.
First, some background: Starting in May, bipartisan investigators for the oversight and Ways and Means committees interviewed several IRS employees, both at the agency's Washington headquarters and at the Cincinnati office, which is in charge of tax-exempt organizations. Since the beginning of June, Issa and Cummings have been releasing choice excerpts from those interviews that appear to bolster their own arguments (Issa suggests that the White House was involved in the Tea Party targeting, Cummings says that's nonsense).
Issa and Cummings have also, at various points, promised to release the entire transcripts of the interviews. On Tuesday, Cummings delivered, releasing all 205 pages of the Q&A with Cincinnati IRS manager John Shafer. (You can find the whole interview here, or read Cummings' five pages of transcript highlights below.) What's the big deal with that? A week ago, Issa warned Cummings against releasing full transcripts, calling the idea "reckless" and detrimental to the ongoing investigation, while defending "limited releases of testimony."
Cummings, in his June 18 response to Issa, noted that Issa's staff shared the entire transcripts of three other IRS interviews with the media, and justified the release of Shafer's transcript as necessary to debunk "conspiracy theories about how the IRS first started reviewing these cases." Among those conspiracy theories, Cummings suggested, are Issa's "serious and unsubstantiated accusations" to CBS on June 14 (watch below):
This was the targeting of the president's political enemies, effectively, and lies about it during the election year, so that it wasn't discovered until afterwards. [Issa, on CBS]
On Tuesday, Issa shot back that he is "deeply disappointed" that Cummings released the transcript, arguing that it "will serve as a roadmap for IRS officials to navigate investigative interviews with Congress." But reading what Shafer told the committee, says Taylor Marsh at her blog, "it's now obvious why Issa didn't want the full transcript made available to the public."
Instead of Issa proving the Tea Party screening was concocted out of the Obama White House, we learn just the opposite.... With a "self-described conservative Republican" offering what sure seems to be the exonerating evidence, Mr. Issa looks like a complete buffoon. [Taylor Marsh]
On the contrary, says Scott Johnson at PowerLine, releasing the transcript makes Cummings and the White House look desperate. The "cunning Mr. Cummings" has already declared the IRS investigation "solved," and now, "having failed to shut the investigation down, Cummings is performing public relations on behalf of Obama and trying to complicate, if not obstruct, the committee's investigation," says Johnson. What does he have to hide?
Few people outside of the House oversight committee have probably read all 205 pages of the interview yet, but having the raw documents will still be useful, says Joe Gandelman at The Moderate Voice. It "means the emerging stories will compare assertions by Rep. Darrell Issa and the transcripts."
If Issa was being candid, he has nothing to worry about. If he was not correctly characterizing the testimony, then his credibility will take a big hit.... Should be interesting. [Moderate Voice]
No, it's now the exact opposite of interesting, says Philip Bump at The Atlantic Wire. We're now "bogged in a subset of a subset of a subset of a war between Democrats and Republicans," and this scandal is quickly entering the "please-let-it-end phase." Despite Issa's assertion, "no one — literally, no one — will be so outraged" by Cummings' move, and few people will be excited, either. After all, Bump adds, Cummings leaked many of the juiciest bits to the press last week.
We looked through the full thing, and there are a few new details.... But the raw facts remain the same. Someone brought [Shafer] a Tea Party application, noting that it didn't fit into the group's regular sorting system. The agents reviewed 20-25 applications daily, so the manager would often isolate similar applications so that they could be reviewed by the same person, given that they shared similar characteristics. Look, if you've ever wanted to get a more complete sense of the detailed operations of a division of the IRS that deals exclusively in the routing of complex paperwork, you should definitely read the full interview....
Cummings is in the trickier position, being asked to prove a negative. This is the way with scandals. It is easier to imply wrongdoing than to prove it didn't happen. It is easier to raise the question than to answer it. It shows in polling; a CNN poll today found that 55 percent of Americans thought D.C. was involved in the scandal, up from 37 percent. [Atlantic Wire]
Issa starts discussing the IRS scandal at about the 2:00 mark.
Here's a five-page compilation of key parts of the Shafer interview, picked by Democrats:
FIRST-HAND ACCOUNT: Cummings Releases Full Transcript of "Conservative Republican" IRS Manager Explaining Genesis of Tea Party Screening