House committee cancels shutdown hearing after Mnuchin declines to appear

Posted at 10:57 PM, Jan 23, 2019
and last updated 2019-01-23 22:57:13-05

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has declined to appear before the House Ways and Means Committee on Thursday to testify on 36,000 Internal Revenue Service employees being called back to work without pay, a committee aide told CNN on Wednesday.

Committee Chairman Richard Neal, a Massachusetts Democrat, had called last Thursday for Mnuchin to cut short his scheduled trip to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, so that he could attend the hearing. The White House announced later that day that the trip had been canceled due to the partial government shutdown.

The committee has canceled the hearing, which would have been focused on the impacts of the shutdown on American taxpayers, the aide said, noting that Neal had spoken to Mnuchin earlier Wednesday.

A person familiar with the conversation between Mnuchin and Neal confirmed the two men had spoken by phone and had a productive conversation on concerns of the chairman regarding the government shutdown and its impact on taxpayers.

During the call, Mnuchin conveyed his willingness to appear before the committee soon.

CNN has reached out to the Treasury for comment.

Neal sent his request to Mnuchin last Wednesday, but made it public only the next day, when President Donald Trump canceled access to military aircraft for a congressional trip to Afghanistan led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, citing the shutdown.

The IRS, an agency of the shutdown-impacted Treasury Department, called the furloughed employees back last week — many to work without pay — in order to send out Americans’ tax refunds on time.

Facing potential political blowback over delays in processing refunds, the agency committed to paying the tax refunds, reversing a long-standing policy that refunds due to individuals and corporations go unpaid during a government shutdown.

“Tax refunds will go out,” Russell Vought, the acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, told reporters on Jan. 7. He added that the Trump administration is working to make the shutdown “as painless as possible, consistent with the law.”

A senior administration official told CNN at the time that the change was supported by a 2011 IRS memo that argued tax refunds can be paid out during a shutdown.

More than 46,000 people, or roughly 57% of the IRS’ workforce, have been furloughed because of the shutdown. Tax filing season begins Monday.

The National Treasury Employees Union, which represents roughly 70,000 IRS workers around the country, said last Tuesday that the executive branch can’t continue to force more and more employees to show up in exchange for an IOU.

“There is no doubt the IRS needs to get ready for the 2019 filing season that starts Jan. 28, and IRS employees want to work,” said union President Tony Reardon in a statement. “But the hard, cold reality is that they’ve already missed a paycheck and soon they’ll be asked to work for free for as long as the shutdown lasts.”