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POLITICS: PennAve

Obama calls up Danny Werfel, Washington's cleanup man, to restore trust in the scandal-plagued IRS

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Politics,White House,Barack Obama,IRS,PennAve,Susan Crabtree

Acting IRS Administrator Danny Werfel may sound more like a scrappy Washington Nationals rookie than the man President Obama hand-selected to try to restore public trust in the tax-collecting agency America loves to hate.

Revelations in May that the Internal Revenue Service had targeted conservative groups for special scrutiny sparked a national furor as both Republicans and Democrats lambasted the agency for abusing its power and violating its mission to "enforce the law with integrity and fairness to all."

With the press making comparisons to President Nixon's politicizing the IRS to target his enemies, Obama was under pressure to get to the bottom of the scandal and produce results — fast.

The president turned to Werfel after former IRS Administrator Steven Miller resigned under pressure in mid-May.

The choice had some longtime Washington observers scratching their heads. How could a 42-year-old, behind-the-scenes bureaucrat who's known to friends and colleagues alike as "Danny" have the gravitas to carry out such a difficult task?

But his former colleagues at the Office of Management and Budget weren't questioning the pick at all.

After all, Werfel, who earned his law degree from the University of North Carolina and has a master's in public policy from Duke University, had became the president's go-to "Mr. Fix It" in recent years — helping manage the sequester's budget cuts earlier this year and prepare for the possibility of a government shutdown in 2011.

Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit that promotes civil service and government efficiency, described Werfel as a great utility infielder that the IRS got in an amazing trade.

"He's up for anything and he's genuinely dedicated and good at everything he takes on," he said.

Werfel can't avoid some sports references. To make sure that employees didn't confuse Werfel with former NFL quarterback Danny Wuerffel, former OMB Director Peter Orzag wrote a blog post a few years ago clarifying that Werfel is not the same man as the Heisman Trophy winner.

Werfel is "better than the Heisman," Orzag wrote.

Instead of controlling the game from the huddle or the mound, however, Werfel has spent the past month getting pummeled by members of Congress wanting answers and heads to roll.

Werfel spearheaded a 30-day initial review of the IRS' targeting of conservative groups that key Republicans say left more questions than it answered.

"Who started the practice? Why has it been allowed to continue for so long? How widespread was it? In fact, the report suggests you haven't even asked anyone those questions," Rep. Dave Camp, a Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, demanded at a hearing in late June.

The forthcoming attitude is a refreshing contrast to the eye-rolling Douglas Shulman, the now-retired administrator who oversaw the IRS when the targeting of conservative groups occurred, or the more cagey Miller — both whom testified to Congress before Werfel came on board.

There's a reason Werfel knows how to talk to Republicans. His tenure at OMB includes time spent in both the Obama and George W. Bush administrations.

Robert Shea developed a close working relationship with Werfel when they worked at OMB in the Bush administration.

Later, during the 2012 presidential campaign, Shea helped lead government transition plans in case former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won the presidential race. He recommended Romney keep Werfel at OMB.

"He was a known quantity to us — we could trust him to execute the administration's policies," he said.

Werfel and Daniel Tangherlini, the newly confirmed head of the General Services Administration who has earned high praise for cracking down on waste and abuse at the agency, both cut their teeth at OMB and later worked together on ensuring stimulus funds weren't wasted.

"It's our willingness to go into places that other people are running out of ... it's a motivation and interest to serve the public in ways [in which] you can have the most impact," Tangherlini told the Washington Examiner, describing why he and Werfel take on such high-profile, crisis-management posts.

The Wall Street Journal recently was far less enthusiastic, dubbing Werfel a Washington "technocrat."

Linda Combs, who served as OMB controller from 2005 to 2007 when Werfel was her deputy, urged fellow Republicans to be patient even if the process seems slow.

"It's more important to get at the right facts and get all the facts out than to do a quick cover job," she said. "I certainly have enough respect and admiration for the work Danny did when we were together to believe he will do just that."

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