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The Importance of Congressional Oversight

May 17, 2013

It has been a busy week in Washington.  Congress is investigating several situations including the targeting of certain political organizations by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and reports the Secretary of Health and Human Services may have improperly solicited outside funds to help implement the health care law.  Many important questions remain, underscoring the need for Congress to continue its oversight of the executive branch.

Last week, the IRS admitted the agency had inappropriately targeted conservative organizations applying for tax exempt status.  Applicants with names including words such as “tea party” and “patriots” were subjected to additional review, audits, and intrusive questioning about their fundraising, volunteers, and activities.  IRS employees even may have illegally released confidential taxpayer information.

This issue is not new.  The House Committee on Ways and Means, on which I serve, has been investigating these allegations for nearly two years.  We now know senior officials at the IRS became aware as early as June 2011 the agency had been targeting conservative groups since mid-2010.  However, the agency denied these charges in meetings with the committee, subcommittee hearings, and numerous written responses to the committee.

This is not a conservative issue, nor a liberal issue – members of both parties agree such action by the IRS is an abuse of power and should not be tolerated.  I was pleased to see President Obama condemn the agency’s practices, and the resignation of the IRS Acting Director Steven Miller was appropriate.  However, this resignation does not end the investigation, nor does it change the culture of this Administration.  It is critical Congress get to the bottom of this case because it is not clear the White House can be entrusted to conduct an internal review to correct this problem.

The Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over the tax code, has held a hearing on this matter and we will continue to vigorously review this issue on a bipartisan basis, seek those responsible and ensure they are held accountable.

The Ways and Means Committee also is looking into recent reports Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius solicited outside donations from private health care companies, non-profit organizations, churches and others to help promote the President’s health care law.  These reports represent a potential conflict of interest because the Secretary asked for financial support from the very organizations forced to comply with the law and regulated by the Department of Health and Human Services.

On Monday, 22 of my colleagues on the committee and I sent a letter to Secretary Sebelius seeking to clarify these reports.  We asked the Secretary to answer several questions regarding the potential conflict of interest and whether she violated federal ethics regulations, which bar augmentation of congressional appropriations.

In the past week we have seen examples of why Congress must serve as a watchdog for the public.  Oversight of the President and the Administration is not a partisan exercise – it is an important function of the legislative branch.