Darrell Issa
Darrell Issa, R-Calif., is chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Screenshot/House Oversight Committee

As the alleged scandal surrounding the Internal Revenue Service begins to fall apart, Republicans and Democrats have developed two mutually contradictory narratives about how the whole issue has been mishandled. Each side used a House Oversight Committee hearing Thursday to air those arguments.

Republicans continued to claim that the IRS improperly went after conservative groups, but admitted, as evidence now suggests, that progressive groups were also targeted. Democrats tried to make the case that no political scandal really exists since tea partiers weren’t the only targets. Tempers flared, and accusations flew between the two sides as the hearing went on for more than five hours. In the end, both sides agreed on at least one thing: The IRS investigation is not over.

A prime target for Democrats was the committee chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who made waves in early June when he called White House Press Secretary Jay Carney a “paid liar” and accused the administration of trying to blame “a few rogue agents in Cincinnati, when in fact the indication is they were directly being ordered from Washington.”

“We have been hearing over and over again from the Republicans that the Obama administration and the White House were responsible for the ‘targeting’ of tea party groups for political reasons – even the chairman’s op-ed this morning in USA Today continues to raise questions about whether the White House ‘directed’ the targeting,” Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the committee, said before questioning the witnesses on the first panel.

Issa quickly interjected: “I have never said that it was the president, I’ve never said that he directed it,” he said.

The next Democrat to speak, Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia, took several minutes to offer a biting critique of Issa’s conduct since the scandal first broke. “It’s a terrible thing when the narrative we’ve got in our heads just doesn’t work out because the facts don’t back them up,” Connolly said, referring to Issa, who then tried to interject again. But Connolly continued. “Before I yield, I’ll read back a quote from the chairman on national television, because he just assured us that he never linked the president to this. And I read this, quote, ‘this was the targeting of the president’s political enemies effectively and lies about it during the election year so that it wasn’t discovered until afterwards.’ Now that’s the narrative, and there’s no evidence, including from these two witnesses today, that that’s true.”

When Connolly yielded for the chairman to respond, Issa said he stood by the fact that the tea party and President Barack Obama were political enemies. “You can stand by that, Mr. Chairman, but that wasn’t your initial narrative,” Connolly replied. “Your initial narrative was: There was an enemies list and it was limited to conservative groups like the tea party. And that’s not true. In fact, the evidence tells us that’s not true.”

While Republican members have not ruled out White House involvement, they claimed triumph over recent news that IRS officials in Washington had been working on the tea party applications. The claim is largely a semantic one, with “Washington” signifying political motivation or top-down instruction when the evidence suggests it was normal to seek advice from counsel in the Washington, D.C., office.

But it is true that the extra scrutiny was not limited to personnel in the Cincinnati field office, as IRS officials initially stated. One of the two witnesses on the first panel, now-retired lawyer Carter Hull, was involved in the process from Washington. The committee recently discovered that the IRS’ chief counsel’s office, which is run by an Obama appointee, was also consulted on the tea party applications -- the closest connection established so far between the scandal and the White House. Hull described the involvement of the chief counsel’s office as normal. The other witness on the first panel was Elizabeth Hofacre, who handled the first tea party applications in the Cincinnati office with guidance from Hull.

Republicans used the Washington connection to lob a second attack on Democrats and Carney in particular, accusing them of using two “rogue agents” in Cincinnati as a scapegoat. Carney, they said, had unfairly vilified innocent civil servants. The accusation was noted several times, but perhaps never so passionately as by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who intimated that Carney’s conduct is a scandal in its own right.

“When you have such senior, powerful people in Washington, D.C., trying to discredit you and your person, your service, it’s just wrong,” Chaffetz said. “You know, if we did what the White House wanted us to do, if we did what the ranking member suggest we do, this thing would be over. Nothing here. Don’t do it. Far as I’m concerned, it’s over. When you have the spokesperson for the president of the United States make a definitive statement that it was two rogue agents, and start poking at these people who have no power to do anything about it, that is wrong. How dare anybody suggest that we’re at the end of this? This is the beginning of this.”

“That’s why I think the White House is now engaged in this,” Chaffetz added.

The term “rogue agents” has been tossed around a lot since the "scandal" broke in May, including during Issa’s infamous TV appearance, but IRS officials, not Carney, appear to be the source of the quote. In May, Carney had referred to “conduct by IRS officials in Cincinnati” and “a report about line IRS employees improperly scrutinizing what are known as 501(c)(4) organizations by using words such as ‘tea party’ and ‘patriot.’” Still, the idea that the White House had impugned two innocent civil servants as “rogue” was a major theme throughout the hearing.

Following news that progressive groups had also been targeted on IRS “be on the lookout” (BOLO) lists, the second panel of witnesses featured J. Russell George, the Treasury Department inspector general whose audit had brought the entire affair to light, as well as George’s chief counsel, Michael McCarthy, and one of his department’s assistant inspector generals, Gregory Kutz.

“New documents from July 2010 listing the term quote 'Progressive' unquote but noting that 'Progressive are not considered Tea Parties' were provided to [the Treasury inspector general's office] last week, on July 9th, 2013. They were not provided during our audit, even though similar documents that list quote ‘Tea Party’ unquote but not ‘Progressive’ were,” George said, according to his opening statement. “I am disturbed that these documents were not provided to our auditors at the outset, and we are currently reviewing this issue.” Over the following several hours, committee members tried to figure out why the inspector general had missed this key information.

But Issa and Cummings brought the marathon hearing to a close on a bipartisan note. In his final remarks, Cummings, his voice rising, argued that the role of the committee is to get the facts in order to improve the IRS, however long it takes.

“You said it in so many words just a moment ago: The IRS can be better,” Cummings said, focusing on the inspector general. “Nothing less, nothing more. It is simply that. And I do not want to see the IRS destroyed. I want it to be the very best that it can be. And so with your help, and the help of God, we will accomplish that.”