By JAKE SHERMAN and LAUREN FRENCH
Scandal politics are sweeping Capitol Hill.
Just days after news broke that the IRS targeted conservative nonprofits, Speaker John Boehner ’s House committees will morph into mock courtrooms where the White House will be the defendant in what amounts to a number of high-stakes political trials.
GOP faces tough balance investigating Obama
The most recent scandal to grip the Obama administration came Monday evening, when The Associated Press disclosed that the Justice Department sought its reporters’ phone records — including those of correspondents who sit in the Capitol. Within hours, House Republicans vowed to investigate. To make things worse for President Barack Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder is scheduled to be on Capitol Hill Wednesday for a House Judiciary Committee hearing.
That’s hardly the president’s only problem.
Two separate committees — Oversight and Government Reform, and Ways and Means — will probe whether the IRS was treating right-leaning groups unfairly.Republicans moved swiftly to secure the IRS acting director for a Friday hearing, just a week after the news broke. GOP aides hinted Monday afternoon that widespread calls for the director’s resignation could come shortly.
The panels will probe whether the targeting of right-leaning groups is systematic, or isolated. Ways and Means Republicans say they are interested in when top IRS officials, specifically former Commissioner Douglas Shulman was told about search terms used to single out conservative groups. Shulman told Ways and Means members in March 2012 that the IRS was not engaged in any manner of political targeting.
Top GOP sources acknowledge that it’s highly unlikely the White House was directly involved in the IRS mess, but the probe is sure to add to the Republican-spun narrative of Democratic, Big Government overreach.
The IRS probes might be new to the public, but they’re not to House Republicans, who have long worried about politicization at the agency. The hot-button topic has come up in several committee hearings since the GOP took the majority.
The inquest into the IRS is just the latest in a string of GOP-led investigations suddenly gaining steam on Capitol Hill. Instead of negotiating with the White House, GOP lawmakers are now investigating it.
There are currently five separate committee investigations into the attack on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, and a probe into Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius raising millions of dollars to promote Obamacare. Ways and Means is demanding answers to seven questions on this matter, as well.
All together, roughly one-third of House committees are engaged in investigating some aspect of the Obama administration.
“The speaker and other House leaders have been clear: Effective, responsible oversight is a key constitutional responsibility of Congress,” said Michael Steel, Boehner’s spokesman. “Whether the topic is the truth about Benghazi, thuggish political attacks from the IRS or the ‘train wreck’ of the president’s health care law, we will keeping fighting to make sure the American people know the truth.”
As Obama tries to jump-start immigration reform and a deficit deal and raise the debt ceiling, it’s becoming clear it could be a long, hot summer for the White House.
Republicans are having an “I told you so” moment, as well. For months, the party’s lawmakers have breathlessly proclaimed the IRS was unfairly targeting conservative outside groups, and swore the Obama administration was covering something up in the wake of the attack in Benghazi. Now, others seem to agree.
The uptick in oversight opens a new chapter in Boehner’s tumultuous relationship with Obama, and ensures that the president and House GOP’s political fortunes will be determined in the unpredictable committee hearing process
Focusing on scandals that play well with its base ahead of the 2014 midterms is great politics for the House GOP leadership. Republicans have little to do legislatively, as this week it will pass for the 37th time a full or partial repeal of Obama’s health care law. It’s commonplace these days to see bills that could be completed in one day take most of the week.
The decision to engage in a multipronged attack against the Obama administration poses both risks and rewards for the Republican leadership. The party has yet to fully coalesce around a legislative agenda, a plan to raise the debt ceiling or a broad-based governing strategy. Republicans, who have tried to soften their image, now risk being defined by shouting matches. Their job-creating message is in danger of being overshadowed by scandal.
Perhaps the best thing about this spate of investigations is that it has unity without having to scrounge 218 votes for any legislation.
But the risks for Obama could not be greater. He has just 3½ years to cement a legacy, hardly an easy task when Congress is at war with him. Imagine cutting an immigration deal with Issa — who is involved in that debate — when he’s dragging administration officials in front of his committee all summer. Same goes for Camp, who is yearning to rewrite the Tax Code in his last year as chairman.
“Our frustration with the broken Tax Code will remain our focus, but it’s just troubling what this IRS targeting means in a larger sense in the way the IRS operates and the Treasury operates,” Ways and Means Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) told POLITICO.