A long-silent Internal Revenue Service official delivered debut testimony Wednesday on her role in this spring’s scandal over the alleged targeting of tea-party conservatives, the result being a House panel fracturing over a smorgasbord of issues from the shutdown to the Obamacare rollout to religious liberty to unexplained executive visits to the White House.
Sarah Hall Ingram, the director of the IRS’ Affordable Care Act office who formerly ran the Exempt Organizations division where the targeting controversy originated, told lawmakers the IRS portion of implementing the health reform law was “launched on schedule and working as planned” with solid privacy protections in place.
She referred many policy questions on the disputed reforms to planners at the Health and Human Services Department, and she explained her nearly 80 visits to the White House – which conservatives saw as politically worrisome -- as “providing administrability analysis” of the law. She also noted the reported nearly 80 visits was misleading because she had a “repeating invite to attend as needed” and did not go to all the sessions, which were in the Old Executive Office Building, not the West Wing.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, convened the hearing with a slam at the Affordable Care Act. But the hearing broke down over debate on which witnesses the IRS could present, computer glitches faced by citizens seeking to enroll in state health insurance exchanges, and the dignity of federal civil servants.
“Obamacare’s first week has been a mess,” Issa said, “and there are no mulligans. The question is, did the IRS fail to plan or fail in an open and transparent way that is consistent with the law?”
Ranking Member Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., countered that “today’s hearing is an obvious attempt to link two issues that have nothing to do with each other: the implementation of the ACA and the so-called IRS Tea Party scandal.”
Cummings commended Ingram, not as the “mastermind” behind the targeting but as “a superstar,” noting that she left the Exempt Organizations division to work on health care a full six months before the alleged targeting of certain applicants for tax-exempt status. He also noted that Ingram in 2004 was among recipients of the Distinguished Presidential Rank Award, won a large bonus, and had her photo taken with dozens of fellow winners with President George W. Bush.
Cummings and Issa squabbled over whether that photo should be displayed and whether it proved that Republican-favored IRS employees were not capable of targeting conservatives. They argued over whether Issa was proper in confining the witness list to Ingram, when Cummings said acting IRS Commissioner Danny Werfel had wanted to send a team of four who are currently working on document production for the committee and the Affordable Care Act.
“In my 17 years here,” Cummings said, “I’ve never seen a chairman tell the head of an agency that he can’t be present at a public hearing at which one of his employees is appearing.”
Issa replied, “Elections have consequences, and the decision to have the head of implementation appear was mine.”
The pre-testimony fireworks continued. “What does she know that IRS doesn’t want this committee to know,” asked Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio. He noted the presence of Ingram’s name in the minutes of a May meeting of the IRS Oversight Board at which she updated colleagues on the health care law’s implementation. “It took us nearly five months to get her to come here, why?”
Jordan and Issa’s chief issue with Ingram was the presence of her name on heavily redacted emails dealing with meetings at the White House discussing a lawsuit from 58 religious groups protesting their obligation to offer plans under the Affordable Care Act. “The documents indicate that Hall Ingram and her subordinates violated the IRS’ traditional role as an impartial administrator of the tax code by using their expertise and knowledge to advise the White House on a politically controversial subject: the four-prong test for religious exemption to the contraception mandate,” the lawmakers said in a press release.
Ingram, an attorney with 31 years in government, said implementation of the tax portions of the health care law is a “collaborative work of all parts of IRS. My office is only one piece, and is separate,” she said, from offices dealing with the law’s technology, business processes and from the chief counsel’s office. “The major effort is delivery of the premium tax credit,” she added, citing three categories: information technology to share data with states; protections of taxpayer privacy; and updating and improving business procedures.
“I’m pleased to report that all was launched on schedule and [everything is] working as planned,” she said, including answering user questions within certain turnaround times and preparing health insurance applicants’ income verification reporting in time for the 2015 tax season.
Ingram did not shed light on the blacked-out information on Issa’s redacted emails. “I get hundreds of emails a day and can’t recall what’s in every one,” she said. “But we take Section 6103 [the privacy protection provision in the tax code] very seriously,” she said, noting that the health law allows certain exceptions on data to determine applicant eligibility for subsidies.
Issa was not satisfied and demanded that the IRS deliver unredacted versions of the emails before the hearing’s end. (Werfel later told Issa that would not be feasible, Issa told the panel at the end of the session, and he vowed to obtain the full emails later.)
Under questioning from Democrats, Ingram said she witnessed no political targeting at IRS, attributing the invocation of her name to a misunderstanding of her role based on the fact that her official title didn’t change to reflect her health responsibilities until three years after she left Exempt Organizations.
But she said she was upset when she skimmed the May audit from the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration that set off the scandal. “I don’t think it’s ever OK to use people’s political viewpoints when managing” a project at the agency, she said. “I don’t personally engage in public debate on investigations, but over my career, when investigations show things that are not going right,” she added, “I always thought TIGTA was the appropriate place to turn to.”
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., asked her how the IRS is getting by with 90 percent furloughs. “A small number trying to keep things going,” Ingram said.
Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., baffled the witness by asking with sarcasm if she’d read the play “The Crucible,” which portrays the Salem Witch trials. He asked her if she “consorted with the devil” (not knowingly, she said). “Can you fly?” (that’s exaggerated, she replied), and “Have you corrupted youth?" (She said she hoped not.) “I regret you’re being pilloried like those in 'The Crucible,' ” Connolly said.
Rep. John Duncan Jr., R-Tenn., said, “This not a joke,” given that the administration had 42 months to prepare for what he sees as the health care law’s inauspicious debut.