As he announced the forced resignation of his top tax collector Wednesday, President Obama seemed to find a silver lining on the scandal engulfing the Internal Revenue Service. “The good news,” he said, “is it’s fixable.”
A day later, the White House seemed determined to continue radiating the same confidence. At midday, Obama appeared again before his press corps, saying variations of the word “fix” five more times in relation to the IRS mess. Hours later, the Treasury Department announced a replacement for the top job at the IRS, Danny Werfel, a well-respected technocrat who has worked for both Republican and Democratic administrations. And another senior IRS official, Joseph Grant, who recently oversaw the troubled unit that mishandled nonprofit applications, had announced his retirement.
But the prospect of a clean or quick resolution to the scandal seemed no closer, especially with a drip of more revelations expected in the coming days and weeks, and the uncertainty of a criminal investigation looming.
On Capitol Hill, Republicans made clear that they will not be rushed in their investigations, and that they intended to attempt to broaden the scandal in an effort to hamper the roll out of the 2010 healthcare reform law, called Obamacare, which will require substantive new oversight by the IRS. ABC News named Sarah Hall Ingram, a bureaucrat now charged with implementing Obamacare enforcement at the IRS, as the person in charge of the office that oversaw tax-exempt organizations between 2009 and 2012, during the worst documented abuses.
“Now more than ever, we need to prevent the IRS from having any role in Americans’ health care,” said Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a former chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, in a statement. “After the events of last week, I cannot support giving the IRS any more responsibility or taxpayer dollars to implement a broken law.” He introduced a bill that would bar the IRS from enforcing any part of the new health insurance law, a symbolic measure that has little hope of passage.
On the other side of the Capitol, House Ways and Means Committee also finished preparations for the first of many public hearings on the IRS mishandling of applications by conservative nonprofits. Chairman Dave Camp, a Michigan Republican, made it clear that he had no intention of pushing towards a quick resolution. “There are still far too many unanswered questions and until we know what truly happened, we cannot fully fix what is wrong,” Camp said. Friday’s hearings were expected to take testimony both from the Treasury Department’s Inspector General, who has investigated the misdeeds at the IRS, and the current acting director of the IRS, Steve Miller, who was forced to resign on Wednesday.
Miller’s replacement, Werfel, has served as the controller of the Office of Management and Budget, where he oversaw Obama Administration preparations for the implementation of the sequester. He also served as a civil service employee in the same office for President George W. Bush. “He is an immensely talented and dedicated public servant who has ably served presidents of both parties,” Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew said in a statement. “Danny has a strong record of raising his hand for — and excelling at — tough management assignments.”
Those talents will be required in the coming months. Not only will Werfel be forced to push reforms for the massive agency, which has long been troubled and where improvements have been difficult to enact. But he will have to juggle ongoing criminal and congressional investigations, while working in an environment beset by conflicting political pressures. The President’s “good news” scenario may come to pass, but it is unlikely to occur anytime soon.
With reporting by Zeke Miller