WASHINGTON — Several Tennessee and Georgia lawmakers grilled former Internal Revenue Service officials this week.
At two dramatic Capitol Hill hearings, Southern Republicans emphasized three distinct topics in committees that are investigating the federal agency. But the GOP trio focused on one essential belief: The IRS isn't fit to lead after employees admitted discriminating against conservative groups asking for tax-exempt status.
A Georgia senator asked outgoing officials what advice they would give a new IRS commissioner; a Knoxville lawmaker questioned whether the nation's tax agency should inquire about a group's prayers; and a Jasper congressman wondered if the IRS responsibly can enact aspects of the health care law as the scandal develops.
Congressional hearings drag on and on, and seniority rules allow the committee chairman and the minority party's senior member to dominate much of the time. But backbencher or longtime stalwart, each rank-and-file committee member gets five minutes to ask questions -- a guaranteed way to show constituents back home they're digging into the latest controversy.
Sen. Johnny Isakson on Tuesday made the tea party scandal personal. At a Senate Finance Committee hearing, the Georgia Republican mentioned a recent telephone town hall with Peach State residents.
Isakson said a caller named Sid "lost confidence in the United States of America" after the IRS admitted targeting tea party groups. Striking a grandfatherly tone, Isakson asked two former IRS heads what advice they'd bestow upon their replacements so the agency could regain Sid's trust.
The answer from former acting IRS Commissioner Stephen Miller? Classic Washington-speak: Attack the issue, take a hard look, make some changes, install new safeguards, improve transparency.
"They weren't very good answers," Isakson said after the hearing. "I want an internal investigation. I want to know who, what, when and where."
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee questioned a similar crop of IRS witnesses Wednesday.
Members are called upon in order of seniority. Newer congressmen, such as second-term Rep. Scott DesJarlais, are forced to wait several hours to be called upon. That happened Wednesday, but the Jasper Republican took advantage of his time when it came.
Several Republicans have mentioned the fact that IRS workers will be implementing parts of "Obamacare." A physician, DesJarlais seized on the issue, asking former IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman whether the agency is ready to handle the "most personal information" Americans can offer -- their medical histories and hospital records.
"I feel very confident in the capabilities of the IRS broadly and generally," Shulman replied.
"We'll see if America shares your views," DesJarlais interrupted. Time was up for the gentleman from Tennessee.
Earlier in the day, U.S. Rep. Jimmy Duncan quietly broached a topic important to many Tennesseans: Prayer.
The Knoxville Republican mentioned the IRS questioned an anti-abortion group about its prayers and how much time they spent praying.
"Do you think those types of questions should be asked in this situation?" Duncan asked Shulman. "About religious beliefs."
"No, I don't," Shulman replied. "It sounds inappropriate to me."
U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, a Nashville Democrat, also holds a seat on the oversight panel. But his time slot conflicted with a meeting of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, of which he is ranking member.
Contact staff writer Chris Carroll at email@example.com or 423-280-2025.