A top IRS official appeared on Capitol Hill Wednesday to talk about tax provisions in the new health care law and instead took a beating from Republicans over a lingering IRS scandal and the poor start of Obamacare.
Sarah Hall Ingram, director of the Affordable Care Office for the IRS, testified for several hours before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform about the IRS' role in the new health care law, promising the tax agency was prepared for the rollout despite the problems experienced by other agencies as critical components of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act went live Oct. 1.
But Republicans sought to discredit Hall Ingram, who they said has avoided testifying for five months. Hall Ingram, Republicans said, played a role in the government targeting of conservative groups and worked with White House officials as Christian churches and businesses filed lawsuits against the administration over provisions in the new healthcare law that required contraceptive coverage.
“Here's the lady who is at the center of the storm of two of the biggest issues this country has dealt with in recent history — the targeting of conservative groups and implementation of Obamacare,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio. “Here's the lady for the last three years has been head of the office for implementing the Affordable Care Act, and today is the first time she comes in front of the committee? I mean, this is unbelievable.”
There were few questions asked about the Affordable Care Act and its intersection with the IRS, though the hearing title suggested that was the topic. One Republican lawmaker did ask if the IRS would consider delaying the $95 penalty people must pay if they don’t purchase insurance by next year, considering the widespread problems the federal exchanges have experienced since going online Oct. 1.
“I would posit that it's a little early to even have that conversation,” Hall Ingram said.
Hall Ingram previously oversaw the tax-exempt department of the IRS. She said she left the position in 2010 prior to the targeting of Tea Party organizations, though she held the title for two more years. She sought to distance herself from that controversy, criticizing the practices of the IRS under Lois Lerner, who resigned last month amid the fallout.
“I do not ever think it is OK to use people's political viewpoints in the managing of inventory in the tax agency,” Hall Ingram said.
Republicans focused on her work with the White House and presented emails they said showed that she provided political appointees sensitive tax information on churches and the craft-supply retailer Hobby Lobby, which is fighting the contraception-coverage mandate, that was not supposed to be shared. But much of the critical information in the emails was redacted by the IRS.
Democrats characterized Wednesday's hearing as a witch hunt intended to smear a decorated career civil servant in hopes of scoring political points over the new healthcare law. Indeed, at one point, a Democratic lawmaker satirically asked Hall Ingram if she ever worshipped the devil or had the ability to fly.
“Have you been involved in any way in trying to pervert our youth, in Salem or anywhere else?” asked Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va.
“I certainly hope not, sir,” Hall Ingram responded.
Another Democrat, Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., jokingly asked Hall Ingram if she was of Libyan descent, to which she said no.
“If you were at all involved with Benghazi, we would have hit the GOP trifecta: The IRS, the Affordable Care Act and Benghazi,” Pocan said. “You would have made everyone who is frowning on the other side of the aisle just absolutely ecstatic.”
Hall Ingram has worked for the IRS for 31 years under multiple administrations and in 2004 was awarded the Distinguished Executive Presidential Rank Award by President Bush. Democrats repeatedly listed her credentials in the face of Republican criticism. Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said her political background was not an issue.
“In the wake of the IRS scandal caused by an effort to target Americans because of their political beliefs, Americans concerned about the IRS and how they will handle this personal and private information have every reason to be concerned,” Issa said. “Who will have access to the highly personal health and financial information? A great many people, most of whom you don't know.”
Democrats shot back that Republicans were fear mongering.
“You all file your tax returns every year. It's information that these professionals handle with care,” said Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev. “And we need to not raise these alarmist concerns when the data doesn't support the assertion.”