Senate Finance Committee members, from left, Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev. and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., ask Jacob Lew questions during a February hearing.

Senate Finance Committee members, from left, Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev. and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., ask Jacob Lew questions during a February hearing. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

There's an IRS Investigation That's Bipartisan and Leak-Free

The Finance Committee's probe of how the tax agency handled conservative groups has stayed below the radar, and that's by design.

The Senate Finance Committee's investigations team is highly caffeinated.

How else could it have gotten through more than a million pages of documents in the last two years? There is an art to the kind of mind-numbing digging that these sleuths do. They set weekly goals for the number of pages reviewed, but they build in time for breaks. The Republican lead investigator tries to make sure her team spends only half its days in document-review mode and the other half doing something else. Every discovery must be fact-checked; the most important goal is to be as meticulous and thorough as possible, no matter how long it takes.

Welcome to the only bipartisan investigation of the Internal Revenue Service in town. The group consists of roughly half a dozen staffers from both Chairman Orrin Hatch's committee roster and that of ranking member Ron Wyden. They have become chummy over the last few years. Republican and Democratic aides meet regularly to share "hot docs" and observations from their individual perusals. As one aide put it, "There's no 'hide the ball' going on."

The goal of the investigation is to reach a common understanding of the facts, which is no small endeavor when it involves one of the highest-profile scandals of the Obama presidency. If IRS officials did actually subject tea-partiers' tax-exempt applications to questionable scrutiny, that is an intolerable breach of public trust, said Hatch and then-Chairman Max Baucus in a 2013 joint letter to the IRS. Hatch was the committee's ranking member at the time, and that letter launched the investigation. Wyden took over the project when Baucus stepped down last year to become the U.S. ambassador to China.

Democrats and Republicans definitely don't agree about whether there was a political conspiracy at work in the IRS before the 2012 elections. Those kinds of conclusions are matters of interpretation and ideology that have derailed other congressional investigations that attempted to include Democrats.

To keep away from such incendiary questions, investigators on the Finance Committee have pledged to focus solely on what happened. Did the IRS selectively subject certain groups based on their political orientation to additional scrutiny when they requested tax-exempt status? What words or phrases did IRS staff look for when determining which applications would be pulled for additional review? Did that strategy violate internal policy? Was the White House involved?

Since the investigators' primary goal is to keep Republicans and Democrats at the table, they work hard to keep politics out of it.

This is also a no-media zone. Even before they started asking questions, committee investigators agreed to keep their inquiries separate from each side's press operations. There were to be no leaks and no casual pontifications to other staffers. Even the Treasury inspector general, who has supplied the committee with their multiple data dumps, has complimented them on their cone of silence.

The staff investigators for each side regularly brief Wyden and Hatch on their findings to the extent the law allows. The staff is bound by nondisclosure rules under the tax code, and Hatch and Wyden are permitted only limited information. They also occasionally give the full committee an update on their progress, but they are even more constrained under the law in divulging specifics to the broader group.

Other than those briefings, the committee's IRS investigation is off-line. The staffers are even careful about when they say the final report will be done. They claim it is coming "soon," but they won't give a firmer timetable because they know that unexpected events or findings can derail their best-laid plans.

This particular investigation seems prone to such surprise developments. Last summer, the staffers were all set to release their final conclusions when they discovered, through a last-minute affidavit request, that there were thousands of missing emails to and from IRS official Lois Lerner and her staff. That led to a series of further questions about how the emails got lost and whether they could be recovered. The data-retrieval process took longer than expected, of course. Now, the committee investigators are waiting for what they think is the last batch of recovered emails from the inspector general. Once they are done parsing those, they can get to work on the final draft of their report.

Both Republican and Democratic investigators are proud of their ability to keep the lengthy investigation a bipartisan effort. They believe that other congressional probes on the IRS's unfair tax scrutiny of tea-party nonprofits have been cheapened by politicization. They don't name names, but it's not hard to figure out what they're talking about. For nearly two years, then-House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa and ranking member Elijah Cummings butted heads over how to review the agency. Each side wound up issuing separate reports contradicting some of the claims from the other party. Cummings openly accused Issa of abusing IRS officials and wasting millions in taxpayer dollars in subpoenas. The House then voted along near-party lines to censure Lerner, a move that went nowhere.

The Finance Committee's report will be a different animal, aides from both parties say. They are examining the same questions that others have probed, but they aim to be seen—if such a thing is even possible on Capitol Hill—as completely objective in their conclusions. Something obviously went awry at the IRS. They want to give the public specifics about what it actually was.

Hatch and Wyden plan to offer their staff's findings of IRS misconduct together and (hopefully) free of political statements. That will happen later this year, barring any unforeseen developments. Staffers say the bulk of the report will consist of the facts on which both sides have agreed and the conclusions they have jointly drawn.

But bipartisanship can only go so far. After the joint conclusions, each side will then release its own views about what those agreed-upon facts mean—separately.