WASHINGTON — They were the speak-no-evil and see-no-evil duo of the Internal Revenue Service.
Lois Lerner, who runs the IRS office that targeted tea party and similar conservative groups for extra scrutiny, took the Fifth, when she appeared Wednesday before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Douglas Shulman, who was running the IRS when the abuses occurred, would have been wise to do the same.
Lerner asserted her innocence and then fled, chased down a hallway by camera crews and escorted by a police officer who shouted “Get back!” at the pursuing mob; it was all over in a few minutes. But Shulman stayed at the witness table for six hours, insisting the entire time that he had done everything right, that he wasn’t responsible for what went wrong and that it wasn’t that big a deal anyway.
“I don’t take personal responsibility for there being a list with criteria put on it,” he testified.
“I did not hands-on decide the training of 90,000 people,” he told the lawmakers.
“I feel very comfortable that the actions that I took were appropriate,” he said.
“I don’t accept responsibility for putting a name on a list with inappropriate criteria,” he added.
Would he at least accept responsibility for what the IRS’ inspector general called “gross mismanagement”?
“I don’t know generally what you’re talking about,” Shulman said. “I don’t accept the responsibility for every single action of every single employee of the IRS.”
Shulman was dismissive of his questioners, and he often appeared not to be listening, responding with “Excuse me?” and “Repeat the question?” After lawmakers revealed that White House logs showed he had visited 118 times in 2010 and 2011, one committee member asked why.
“The Easter Egg Roll with my kids,” Shulman replied. The closest he would come to culpability was to say that there was “a breakdown in this one unit … and I accept that this happened on my watch.”
Neither the see-no-evil Shulman nor the speak-no-evil Lerner did President Barack Obama any favors. Lerner’s silence and Shulman’s defensiveness only infuriated lawmakers on both sides and left the impression that the administration is hiding something.
“If this committee is prevented, by obstruction or by refusal to answer the questions that we need to get to the bottom of this, you will leave us no alternative but to ask for the appointment of a special prosecutor,” Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., told the witnesses. Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., nodded.
Lerner, asked for her testimony, shifted in her seat and then read a brief statement assuring everybody that “I have not done anything wrong.” She then invoked her right against self-incrimination and, despite howls of protest from Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., was excused. Her being excused left Shulman with several hours to fill with excuses of his own.
“I had some of the facts, not all of the facts.”
“I had no idea of the scope and severity.”
“I didn’t know the full list.”
“The activities were stopped.”
“The matter was in the hands of the IG.”
But no amount of excuses justified Shulman’s categorical claim to Congress in 2012 that “there’s absolutely no targeting” at the IRS — and his failure to set the record straight when he learned that wasn’t true. Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the panel, said “a reasonable person” would have expected Shulman to have informed Congress that his testimony was wrong.
“I told you before,” a clearly exasperated Shulman replied, “I think I took the proper course.”
Facing incredulous questioners of both parties, Shulman employed an array of dodges: “I didn’t individually make decisions. … I don’t have a direct recollection. … I don’t remember it ever being called an internal review. … It’s very unlikely that, you know, I knew about it or reviewed it.”
He quarreled with the lawmakers’ claims that they had sent him 132 letters about the targeting (“I don’t accept the premise”), and he challenged the tally of his White House visits (“I just don’t accept the, you know, the premise of there were 118 visits”).
Shulman testified that he considers himself a good leader and that he was “saddened” by what had happened, as though some sort of natural disaster had occurred. “I’m very sorry that this happened while I was at the IRS,” he said. “I feel horrible about this, for the agency, for the people, for the great public servants. I’m not sure what else I can say.”
How about, “I take responsibility”?
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.