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GOP tries to keep pressure on IRS controversy

Lawmakers kept bickering Thursday over the origin of the IRS targeting of Tea Party groups applying for tax-exempt status, as Republicans sought to refocus public outrage toward a controversy that has diminished in recent weeks. 

Witnesses from the IRS Cincinnati field office charged with reviewing nonprofits described their frustration at having to wait for guidance from Washington, particularly the agency’s chief counsel’s office and the office of Lois Lerner, who oversaw tax-exempt organizations, before moving ahead with processing a backlog of applications. Those applications included some from Tea Party groups.

But they offered no testimony suggesting that Washington officials specifically sought out conservative groups for scrutiny.

Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) (R) and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) take their seats before the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee hearing on "The IRS' Systematic Delay and Scrutiny of Tea Party Applications" on Capitol Hill in Washington July 18, 2013. Yuri Gripas / Reuters

Republicans argued this was evidence of more senior involvement in the targeting of conservative groups than had originally been indicated. Democrats insisted that their GOP colleagues were relying on incomplete information to insinuate that President Barack Obama and his aides had directed the targeting of its political enemies.

“What began in Cincinnati with one case of a Tea Party application soon was, in fact, in Washington at levels well above line employees,” said Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which convened Thursday’s hearing.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the committee’s ranking member, accused Issa and committee Republicans of making “baseless accusations” that the Obama administration had used the IRS to target conservatives.

Emblematic of the partisan squabbling, Issa at one point likened Cummings, an African American, to "a little boy whose hand is caught in the cookie jar," a comment for which he subsequently apologized. 

"When I talked about little boy putting hand in cookie jar... it's about being a child and nothing else," he said.

The committee hearing comes more than two months after the initial revelation that the IRS had inappropriately targeted conservatives, news which prompted Republicans to label the instance a “scandal” and forced Obama to sack the acting IRS commissioner and name a new chief of the tax-collecting agency.

But public outrage has faded over time and following plenty of congressional hearings into the IRS wrongdoing. The IRS’s own report blamed bureaucratic incompetence and red tape for the targeting.

To that end, while members of Congress had been sure to appear for the duration of the first hearings about the IRS, the dais at Thursday’s meeting of the committee was far sparser.

As to the witnesses, retired IRS lawyer Carter Hull said that the multi-layered review of Tea Party groups was, in his experience, “unusual.” But he said he did not know of any information to suggest that political motives were behind the deliberations into how to proceed with the review process.

A former revenue agent who was transferred off of reviewing Tea Party groups in 2010, Elizabeth Hofacre, said she was “deeply offended” by suggestions that IRS targeting was solely the fault of bureaucratic incompetence isolated to Cincinnati.

But she, too, said she had no knowledge of undue political influence over the IRS’s reviews, and told lawmakers she had scarcely worked on Tea Party cases since late 2010.