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Ohio Senator Rob Portman On All Of The President’s Scandals

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HH: All right, now I’m joined by United States Senator Rob Portman. Senator Portman, President Obama just said he’s outraged, outraged at the IRS conduct. Is that enough for you?

RP: No, no. Outrage and apology is not enough. I mean, who is he apologizing to? I mean, we need to see some action, and that means you know, some people have to get fired, we have to have an investigation. You know, they talked about a criminal investigation today down at the Justice Department. That’s appropriate. But frankly, we need to be sure that the House and the Senate do a thorough investigation as well to get to the bottom of it.

HH: Now Senator Portman, this went on in your backyard, and my home state of Ohio.

RP: Cincinnati, yeah.

HH: At least it started there. I read the IG’s report. Have you had a chance to read it, yet? And I think it raises more questions than it answers.

RP: Yeah, I do, too. I haven’t read the whole report, yet, Hugh, but if you notice, some of the appendices apparently leaked out, which I read yesterday. And look, it wasn’t just Cincinnati. It was California and other places where you had these questions being asked. I got involved in this, because the Tea Party groups back home came to me and said Rob, these questions are just incredibly comprehensive and don’t seem to make much sense why they asked us all this stuff. So we actually spearheaded that letter with Orrin Hatch over a year ago saying to the IRS, why are you asking these questions, and laying out some very specific questions, why are you asking about lists, why are you asking about donors, why are you going into this great detail? And that, I guess, got the attention of some folks in the supervisory area. But it’s very troubling, Hugh, because it goes to the very core of what government’s supposed to be about. This is taking a political screen and investigating people, auditing people based on their politics. And nothing could be worse.

HH: Now Senator Portman, my colleague at, Carol Platt Liebau, used to work for Kit Bond, Harvard Law Review managing editor, real smart, did an analysis of this report, and came up, and it’s in a column over at, that one of the key issues here is that members of the Senate like you and Orrin Hatch were misled. “This goes to whether members of Congress were deliberately lied to, and by whom, and whether their concerns were ever taken seriously in the first place.” Do you feel deceived at this point?

RP: Yeah, I do, because they answered the questions, but obviously not truthfully in some cases. So we’re going to have a chance to bring them before the committee. The chairman of the committee is a Democrat, Max Baucus, has agreed with Senator Hatch, who is the ranking member, to hold these investigative hearings, and we’re going to have a chance in public testimony to go through this. And I think it’s incredibly important. I also will tell you, Hugh, you know, I was involved in IRS reform back in the 90s. I was co-chair of that national commission. We looked at sort of the mismanagement of the IRS at the time. We set up an oversight board and so on. The Clinton administration fought us on the powers of the oversight board, so they didn’t have powers over this sort of thing. But that’s one thing to relook at now, is to think should there be an outside oversight board to look at these issues, not just of this specific one, but the culture at the IRS.

HH: Now you raise a great, the culture word, because you ran the OMB and special trade rep. You know how agencies function. They take their cues from the top, and a culture comes down, even if you don’t know what’s going on in the 4th office on the 7th floor of the 3rd building, they know what you’re up to. Does the President bear responsibility for a culture of abuse if it’s developed an intimidation at his agencies?

RP: Well, the administration does, of course. One thing we don’t know, yet, and this is one of the questions that I’m asking, is who directed them? In other words, there’s been a lot of discussion in the last 48 hours about what they, the IRS lower level folks, told their supervisors, what the supervisors may have told Treasury in Washington and so on. We haven’t heard anything about the other side of that. You know, what direction did they get? It seems to me unlikely that relatively low level employees were on this political witch hunt without some kind of direction. And so that’s some of the information that we need to dig into and find out about.

HH: Now we’re roughly the same age, so I’m sure you remember the summer of ’73 when a series of scandals converged in the Watergate hearings. And here we have Benghazi, the AP sweep, we’ve got the HHS fundraising for Obamacare, your colleague, Lamar Alexander, says that’s worse than Iran-Contra. Not sure about that. But the EPA scandals, and now the IRS scandals, are we going to be treated to, forty years later, the summer of ’73 2.0?

RP: We’ll see. I mean, it seems to me to be a pattern here, not just at the IRS, as you say, but also at other agencies and departments. The HHS one troubles me a lot, because I think you know, they actually went around the law to raise money they’re not supposed to do. But as you know, I’ve also been involved in this issue of them using public relations firms and to use taxpayer funds to sell Obamacare, which I also think is totally inappropriate. And I hope that’ll start to come out, too. So there’s a lot of politics going on through government that’s simply inappropriate. And I do think that’s a cultural issue. I don’t think it’s just one agency or one rogue employee. It may not be summer of ’73, Hugh, because you know, there may never be another Watergate. Everything else, though, HHS-gate, EPA-gate, you know, may add up to something that’s bigger. But I do think this is going to be a point at which the American people face this fundamental issue. You know, does big government have all the answers? And I think our answer as Republicans has been you know, big government does not work for the taxpayers, it doesn’t work because it’s inefficient, it doesn’t work because the left hand often doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. But it also doesn’t work because of this intrusion in our lives, and because they start to ask, you know, questions like this about politics. How are they going to do Obamacare, which is a big responsibility?

HH: Agreed, because Obamacare involves the IRS deeply.

RP: Sure.

HH: But the acting commissioner has resigned, and the President announced that at the IRS> He’s quit. That really, I always say well, if the acting commissioner resigned, why not someone above him or someone below him? That actually raises more questions than it answers, doesn’t it, Senator Portman?

RP: Well, yeah, again, what I really am interested in is finding out who directed these folks to take this action. I mean, it seems unlikely to me again that you would have career people at a low level making this decision on their own. Did it come from the acting commissioner? Did it come from their supervisors? Did it come from the Treasury Department? Did it come from the White House? We don’t know the answers to those questions, and I think that’s probably the most important question to ask right now, because that goes to this core issue we’ve been talking about, which is does this culture come from the top?

HH: And to close on Benghazi, I’m sure you watched the hearings last week. What were your impressions and of questions left to be asked about Benghazi?

RP: The hearings were very emotional for me to watch, and four Americans were killed. And those guys were speaking from their heart. And I’ve got to tell you, I’ve always thought, Hugh, that once the whistleblowers started to step forward, which would be the career people who really do care about what happened that horrible night in Benghazi, we’d start to learn much more about it. And we’re starting to hear that. I don’t think we’ve heard the end of it. I think we’ll hear even more. The one thing that I keep wondering, and I know that there are differences of opinion among the military personnel who have talked about this, but even to have had a flyover of a C-130, or a fighter jet, something relatively easy to scramble and to get there, would have made a huge difference. So this notion that gosh, we couldn’t do anything because we didn’t have Special Forces ready to go, and they weren’t in the vicinity, there are other things that our military could have and should have been able to do, in my view. And that, I hope, is something that we will learn much more about.

HH: United States Senator Rob Portman from the great state of Ohio, thanks for joining us. I agree with you on that, and I hope those questions get asked.

End of interview.


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