It has been six months since the news broke that the Internal Revenue Service was targeting tea-party groups for extra scrutiny last spring.
Since then, investigators with the House Ways and Means Committee have reviewed more than 300,000 documents and interviewed more than two dozen IRS officials, some more than once. Lawmakers from both parties say a clear portrait has emerged of a troubled and unaccountable agency that overreached when it came to overseeing nonprofits.
What they haven't yet found is any direct ties linking the White House to the scandal.
"I think there's no question it's a scandal based on gross mismanagement from the very top circulating all the way down the ranks," said Rep. Charles Boustany, R-La., the chairman of Ways and Means' Oversight Subcommittee that is leading the probe. "We have concerns about whether there's a political scandal. We haven't verified that yet."
But patience among Ways and Means Democrats, especially ranking member Sander Levin of Michigan, is wearing thin. Since the scandal first broke, it has emerged that it wasn't just tea-party groups that were on the agency's controversial "be on the lookout" lists. Some left-leaning organizations were on there, too.
Levin has said the panel's Republicans have been so focused on making political hay of the scandal that they have focused insufficiently on mending the mismanaged tax agency. And he notes that their focus on linking the scandal to the White House hasn't turned anything up.
Boustany responds that he and his colleagues are simply doing due diligence by looking into a broken bureaucracy and trying to ferret out whether the administration exerted any undue influence. "If we hit a wall and we can't prove that, then so be it, if that's what the facts tell us — but we have to get to that point," he said. "Suffice it to say the investigation is not nearly complete."
The probe didn't start out so partisan and controversial. In fact, back in May, committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., and Levin issued a joint statement calling for the IRS to turn over documents, and together they expedited the calendar to schedule a hearing.
But the goodwill began to evaporate by the end of Camp's opening remarks, when he declared of the Obama administration, "This appears to be just the latest example of a culture of cover-ups."
Levin was taken aback. The probe had barely begun, and Camp was talking about a cover-up. Levin quickly changed his prepared statement to respond to the charge.
"We started on a bipartisan basis, but it went downhill and they have tried to use the IRS for purely political purposes," Levin said in an interview earlier this month.
The tax-writing committees of Congress have been one of the last refuges of bipartisanship on Capitol Hill. Camp, Levin, and their counterparts in the Senate — Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., and ranking member Orrin Hatch, R-Utah — continue to push ahead on the first comprehensive rewrite of the nation's tax code in a quarter century.
But the IRS probe has sapped man-hours and strained some of the relationships key to moving forward on tax reform. "Dave Camp has been very much influenced by, and often guided by, the radicalization of the Republican Party," Levin said.
The Ways and Means investigation is one of three simultaneous congressional investigations into the IRS; other probes are by the Senate Finance Committee and the House Oversight panel, chaired by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. While Issa, an aggressive and media-hungry inquisitor, has grabbed many of the headlines in recent months, only the Ways and Means Committee's investigators are allowed to peek at privileged taxpayer information, giving them the clearest view inside the tax agency's operations.
More interviews are scheduled and more document dumps from the IRS are expected in the coming months. Boustany said that the probe, which began by focusing on the IRS's Cincinnati office, has now begun exploring evidence of systematic targeting in the Dallas branch. Eventually, he said, he wants to work his way to Washington and the IRS's chief counsel, one of only two administration appointments at the agency.
"We need to work "¦ all the way up to the senior leadership," Boustany said. "We wanted to get the facts from the bottom first, which I think would make for a much more thorough investigation"¦. You get one crack at these guys when you do these interviews, and we want to know what questions to ask."