The Fox News Segment That Enraged Congressman Cummings

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) exploded at House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) during a hearing about the IRS' inappropriate targeting of organizations seeking tax exempt status, specifically criticizing Issa for releasing relevant evidence to Fox News without also providing it to the committee.

During Issa's recent appearance on Fox News Sunday, the network aired selectively quoted emails from ex-IRS official Lois Lerner, claiming they revealed evidence of “political targeting” by the IRS which may have extended as far as the White House. Media Matters has obtained the emails, which instead show Lerner specifically instructing colleagues to not focus on political activity while scrutinizing tax-exempt organizations.

Issa adjourned the March 5 House Oversight Committee hearing after Lerner testified that she would plead the Fifth and not answer the committee's questions. Cummings responded that he still had a statement and a question, which he proceeded to offer even while his microphone was cut off and Issa left the room. In his remarks Cummings accused Issa of providing Fox News with details of the investigation which were not provided to the committee (emphasis added):

CUMMINGS: For the past year, the central Republican accusation in this investigation [microphone cut]

ISSA: We're adjourned, close it down.

CUMMINGS: -- that this was political collusion directed by, or on behalf of, the White House. Before our committee received a single document or interviewed one witness, Chairman Issa went on national television and said, and I quote, “This was the targeting of the President's political enemies effectively and lies about it during the election year.” End of quote.

ISSA: Ask your question.

CUMMINGS: If you will sit down, and allow me to ask the question, I am a member of the Congress of the United States of America. I am tired of this. We have members over here each who represent between them 700,000 people. You cannot just have a one-sided investigation. There is absolutely something wrong with that. That is absolutely un-American.

ISSA: We had a hearing. Hearing's adjourned. I gave you an opportunity to ask a question, you had no question.

CUMMINGS: I do have a question.

ISSA: I gave you time for [inaudible], you gave a speech.

CUMMINGS: Chairman, what are you hiding?

OFF-CAMERA: He's taking the Fifth, Elijah.

CUMMINGS: He continued this theme on Sunday, when he appeared on Fox News to discuss a Republican staff report, claiming that Miss Lerner was quote, at the center of this effort to, quote, target conservative groups. Although he provided a copy of his report to Fox. He refused my request to provide it to the members of the committee. The facts are, he cannot support these claims. We have now interviewed 38 employees, who have all told us the same thing. That the White House did not direct this [inaudible] or even know about it at the time it was occurring. And none of the witnesses have provided any political motivation. The Inspector General, Russell George, told us the same thing. He found no evidence of any White House involvement, or political motivation.

The Fox News segment Rep. Cummings was referring to took place on March 2, where Rep. Issa presented a draft copy of a report written by House Republicans, as well as previously undisclosed emails from Lerner, which Issa claimed revealed “evidence” of political targeting.

What was omitted during the Fox appearance was that the September 2010 emails reveal Lerner counseling her colleagues to be careful not to focus on political activity while examining 501(c)(4) nonprofit organizations. Early in that email chain, which was obtained by Media Matters, Lerner wrote: “My object is not to look for political activity--more to see whether self-declared c4s are really acting like c4s.  Then we'll move on to c5, c6, c7 - it will fill up the work plan forever!”

Furthermore, the emails do not appear to be about reviewing organizations' applications for tax exempt status, which is the process the IRS is accused of inappropriately conducting. Instead, the emails reference the “self declarer project,” which attempts to review groups which self-declare as tax exempt but do not file an actual application, to ensure those groups are still following the rules. (The “Self-Declarers Questionnaire” which tracks these groups is entirely voluntary.)

Watch the relevant portion of the Fox News Sunday segment below:


WALLACE: Now, we have received a draft copy of a report that's been written by the House Republicans on your committee. And I want to put up part of that. In the executive summary you, the House Republicans say, she was keenly aware of acute political pressure to crack down on conservative-leaning organizations. Congressman Issa, pressure from whom?

ISSA: That's one our questions. She says things like “they” put pressure. So e-mails indicate that there was pressure. We don't know whether it was the president shaking his fingers at the House, the Senate, and the Supreme Court over Citizens United or whether it was --

WALLACE: During the state of the union address?

ISSA: During the state of the union. Where she felt the pressure. Only she can tell us what she thought that pressure was.

WALLACE: The report also cites a newly discovered e-mail from September 16th, 2010, in which Lerner discusses how to check whether groups seeking tax exempt status are engaged in improper political activity. This is an e-mail to other people in the IRS. And she says, quote, “we need to have a plan. We need to be cautious so it isn't a per se political project.” What do you think that e-mail shouts?

ISSA: It's a series of e-mails. When you read them in context, what you realize is she's trying to walk back any kind of ability for someone to look at the record and say, aha, this was political targeting. And, yet, it clearly is political targeting.

WALLACE: Now there is a new effort under way, the IRS promulgated a regulation under which it would impose new boundaries on what these 501-C-4s, that's under the tax code, these are social welfare groups applying for tax exempt status, new limits on how much political activity they can be involved in. And the administration and IRS have sold this as a reaction to the scandal. This is what we're doing to try to clear up the scandal. I gather you've gotten information that this began long before the scandal broke.

ISSA: Exactly, Chris. Lois Lerner was part of the project of targeting conservative groups to laying and cracking down on existing ones. And then this rule change was worked on all the way back at that point to a great extent we believe this is the result of Citizens United. This is their attempt to get what they don't have and couldn't get at the FEC through the IRS.