Top Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch expressed great concern over union influence at the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) while questioning its commissioner John Koskinen Tuesday.
During the hearing, the Senate Committee on Finance addressed management problems it found within the IRS. The focus was on an August report by the committee which looked into how the agency handled applications for tax-exempt status during the 2010 and 2012 elections. The agency has been accused of unfairly denying conservative and tea party groups tax-exempt status.
“I have serious concerns about the influence of labor union activity at the IRS,” Hatch said during the hearing. “While I am not anti-union and while I do not oppose collective bargaining in general, we know that two-thirds of IRS workers are represented by a union organization that is very politically active.”
The National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) is the main union for IRS employees. It represents approximately 150,000 employees from 30 agencies. During the hearing, Hatch also addressed a union practice known as official time. It allows public employees to do union work instead of their actual jobs.
“A fair number of IRS employees work full-time for the benefit of that union,” Hatch continued. “I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to argue that such a strong union presence could have contributed to a politicized environment at the IRS.”
While engaging in official time, workers get to keep their taxpayer-funded pay, job title and benefits. The practice can be found in many state and federal agencies including the IRS.
“While current law allows federal government employees to be represented by unions, Congress has a made a number of exceptions to this policy,” Hatch also noted. “Generally with agencies that have important law enforcement obligations or perform other highly sensitive work.”
Much of the hearing centered on the alleged systematic targeting of conservatives and tea party groups. The incident renewed criticism of the IRS and prompted lawmakers to take a closer look at the agency. Former IRS Director of Exempt Organizations Lois Lerner was accused of blocking a disproportionate number of tax-exempt status applications from conservative groups.
“And, while I expect there to be some resistance to this idea,” Hatch added. “I think it is only reasonable that we take the time to consider whether the IRS should be placed in a similar category.”
While she was allegedly abusing conservative groups, Lerner seemed to very much to favor labor unions. So much so that in 2007 she allegedly ignored a complaint that some major labor unions reported completely different amounts of political expenditures when filing with the IRS and the Department of Labor.
Lerner took a leave of absence from the IRS in May 2013 and resigned in September of that year. After a lengthy investigation, the Department of Justice decided Oct. 23 not to seek criminal charges against Lerner.