The legislative flurry is intended to keep the IRS in the spotlight while Congress investigates the tax agency’s scrutiny of Tea Party groups. The broadest measures have little chance of being enacted and instead are giving party members a chance to stake out positions on shrinking the size of government.
“These bills overall are helping or forcing agencies to put workers ahead of the waste, to address the waste, to hold agencies accountable,” Representative Tim Griffin, an Arkansas Republican, said in a telephone interview. “It’s not always about big vs. small. It’s about smart vs. dumb.”
Democrats counter that Republicans are resorting to what President Barack Obama last week called “political posturing and phony scandals” to divert public attention from the need to reach agreement on more important matters such as the expiration of government funding and raising the U.S. debt limit.
The IRS is an appealing target for Republicans because many taxpayers already dislike the agency and the aggrieved groups include activists the party is seeking to motivate. Facing a five-week dearth of hearings, Republicans are billing their measures Stop Government Abuse Week in a bid to drive home their political message.
Passing the bills also will allow Republican lawmakers to tout a record of action to constituents in their districts. The recess is scheduled from Aug. 2 to Sept. 9, when lawmakers will return to Washington to confront the thornier budget disputes..
The broadest measures being considered this week would require congressional approval of regulations that cost more than $100 million and prevent the IRS from enforcing Obama’s signature 2010 health-care law. Those measures aren’t likely to advance in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
The narrower bills could be considered under an expedited procedure requiring a two-thirds vote for passage. The measures would let citizens record conversations with federal enforcement officials, place a moratorium on IRS conferences and establish a taxpayer bill of rights.
One bill from Representative Jim Renacci of Ohio would add politically motivated enforcement to the list of so-called deadly sins that can lead directly to an IRS employee’s firing.
During a Ways and Means hearing last month, Danny Werfel, the interim IRS leader, told Renacci that adding political targeting to the list would be a “reasonable suggestion.”
The IRS apologized in May for applying extra scrutiny to Tea Party groups seeking tax-exempt status, a revelation that turned Republicans’ simmering discontent with the tax agency into outrage.
“The reason people can identify with the IRS issue is because they’ve lived it,” Griffin said. “I have so many constituents that don’t know why they’re repeatedly audited or don’t know why they can’t get a common-sense answer to their question.”
Representative Mike Kelly’s bill would let federal agencies place workers on unpaid leave when they’re being investigated for serious offenses. Lois Lerner, the IRS official at the center of the Tea Party scrutiny, was put on paid leave when she was forced out of her position.
“I’ve never seen any operation that there’s less accountability or less enforcing of the rules,” said Kelly, a Pennsylvania Republican. “This administration has done a very good job of taking the spotlight off themselves and putting it on somebody else,” rejecting Obama’s characterization of phony scandals.
The debate that will have the most lasting consequences for the IRS won’t occur this week. House and Senate lawmakers after the recess will try to figure out how to reconcile the Republicans’ $9 billion agency budget -- a 24 percent cut -- with the Senate Democrats’ $12.1 billion plan.
Democrats say Republicans are trying to distract from the lack of a direct link between the IRS and the White House or evidence of politically motivated actions by IRS employees.
“Give the Republicans credit for messaging conspiracy, conspiracy, conspiracy, because that’s all they see, everywhere,” Representative Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, said in an interview.
Democrats also point to the inclusion of self-described progressive groups on some IRS watch lists, though it has yet to be determined how or why the Democratic-leaning groups were scrutinized.
Representative Matthew Cartwright, a Pennsylvania Democrat, said people jumped to conclusions about what happened at the IRS based on their first impressions without the rest of the “texture” that has been revealed.
“What am I going to tell the folks at home?” he said in an interview in the Capitol last week. “I’m going to tell them that it’s way more important that we focus on real problems than made-up problems.”
Meanwhile, Republicans and Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee have been complaining to the IRS about the slow pace at which the agency is producing documents for their investigation.
The first flurry of bills is an interim step while that investigation continues and lawmakers consider what other changes need to be made, said Representative Charles Boustany, a Louisiana Republican.
“The IRS has been grossly mismanaged for quite some time and there have been clear abuses,” he said. “And so taking steps to rein that in are very important, and I think these bills will be some of the initial steps in that effort.”
The bills are H.R. 2009, H.R. 367, H.R. 2711, H.R. 2579, H.R. 1660, H.R. 313, H.R. 1541, H.R. 2565, H.R. 2769 and H.R. 2768.
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