By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON — Dave Camp had a secret.
The House Ways and Means Committee chairman was ready to send the panel’s files on former IRS official Lois Lerner to the Justice Department for a possible prosecution, a handover that could have been accomplished with a simple phone call to the attorney general. Instead, Camp put on a show.
The Michigan Republican invited the press and the public to the committee’s storied hearing room Wednesday, only to call an immediate vote to kick them out. This way, the panel could meet in a closed session to debate Lerner’s fate — a dramatic but meaningless gesture because the sole purpose of the secret meeting was to authorize releasing the committee’s files on Lerner to the public.
Republicans said the closed session was required to make the information public, but the panel’s ranking Democrat, Michigan’s Sandy Levin said the debate should be held in the open.
“Mr. Chairman?” he inquired after the plan to go into secret session was announced.
Camp ignored Levin. “The clerk will call the roll,” he said.
“The clerk will call the roll.”
“The clerk will call the roll.”
Levin pressed on, patiently raising a point of order.
“Just chill out,” the 60-year-old Camp finally snapped at his 82-year-old colleague.
“I’m very chilled out,” Levin replied.
This was true. Levin hadn’t raised his voice at all. Camp, on the other hand, was agitated — for good reason. The lawmaker, who is retiring at the end of this term, has built a solid reputation over the years, and he recently won plaudits for releasing a thoughtful proposal to overhaul the tax code. Camp was on course to retire with dignity, at least until he allowed his committee room to be turned into a circus tent Wednesday. It was a folly wrapped in a charade and shrouded by farce.
Folly: There was no need to have a formal hearing to convey the information to the Justice Department, which is already investigating the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups.
Charade: The committee made a big show of having its secret hearing, even though it was a foregone conclusion that the members would vote along party lines to release its “secret” information — including the transcript of the secret hearing — to the public.
Farce: Camp said Lerner could be prosecuted for releasing private taxpayer information. Yet in making public its Lerner files, the committee used its authority to do legally the same thing it accused her of doing illegally: releasing confidential taxpayer information. That hadn’t been done in at least 40 years.
Of course, the taxpayers whose information was released — mostly related to Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS group — may not mind, because they have an interest in seeing somebody pay for the IRS’ targeting of a disproportionate number of tea party groups for extra scrutiny.
The IRS scandal didn’t come close to the “culture of corruption” Camp promised or the “targeting of the president’s political enemies” and cover-up alleged by Darrell Issa, R-Calif., whose committee is holding a contempt vote. Instead, the investigations didn’t go beyond Lerner, a civil servant who led the agency’s tax-exempt division. “This was a career employee in the IRS potentially who did all these things,” Camp said after Wednesday’s secret session. “So we have to make sure that the signal goes out that this doesn’t happen again.”
That’s a reasonable sentiment, and one shared by Levin, who on Wednesday said Lerner had been guilty of “clear mismanagement.” Democrats objected not to Camp turning over the committee’s information on Lerner, but to the cloak-and-dagger hearing followed by the wholesale release of tax records.
The AP’s Stephen Ohlemacher asked Camp why he didn’t just “pick up the phone” rather than make private taxpayer files public.
Camp agreed that such a release was unprecedented but said, “This is so important that I think the public has a right to know.”
But the chairman’s claims of importance were undermined by his committee’s antics, including its showy secrecy. Reporters, waiting out the two-hour closed session in the hallway, were treated to Krispy Kreme doughnuts by the committee’s staff. But inside the room, other staffers were unplugging the journalists’ cables, just to be sure nobody pierced the veil.
When Camp reconvened the hearing after the secret session, cameramen called out for him to wait as they reassembled their equipment. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., complained. “Are you guys ready?” he moaned.
But Camp waited, which was wise. What good is a farce if it isn’t on film?
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.