He oversees an agency that is reviled under the best of circumstances, and is now under fire for targeting conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status and spending at least $49 million on conference-related items such as a "Star Trek" video spoof.
But acting Internal Revenue Service commissioner Danny Werfel, who has been grilled by multiple congressional committees in the past week, has managed to win over Republicans and Democrats alike.
It helps that he had nothing to do with the agency’s transgressions—Werfel was serving as the Office of Management and Budget’s controller until President Obama tapped him to head the IRS two weeks ago.
That makes it the sort of assignment that elicits sympathy. Rep. Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.), who chairs the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government, welcomed Werfel to the panel’s hearing Monday by saying, “I want to congratulate you, if that’s the word, for this appointment.”
But it’s more than that. Werfel, 42, who worked as a budget analyst and lawyer at OMB and the Justice Department, has the sort of mild-mannered, technocratic manner that strikes the right tone in a crisis. The fact that he still goes by "Danny" -- even the president used that diminutive when he announced his appointment -- gives a sense of how approachable he comes across while sitting at the witness table.
In many ways, Werfel’s recent performance is reminiscent of Dan Tangherlini, who was serving as chief financial officer and assistant secretary for management at the Treasury Department when the president installed him as head of the General Services Administration in April 2012, just days after the GSA’s inspector general exposed wasteful spending at a conference on the Las Vegas Strip.
In his congressional testimony, Werfel is straightforward in assessing how badly things have gone at the IRS: When Crenshaw asked whether he thinks the IRS has betrayed the trust of the American people, Werfel replied “I do, Mr. Chairman,” without missing a beat.
But he remains a staunch defender of the agency’s workforce. “I have only been with the IRS a few days, but it is clear to me that IRS employees take great pride in the work they do as nonpartisan civil servants dedicated to helping the nation,” he told lawmakers Monday.
And while he might not give congressional Republicans everything they want, Werfel is quick to deflate potential flashpoints before they erupt. During Thursday’s House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) pressed Werfel on providing documents related to the internal review then-deputy IRS commissioner Steven Miller had commissioned of the tax-exempt organizations division.
At first, Werfel explained the review failed to produce any documents, but when Chaffetz asked sarcastically, “Not even an e-mail?” Werfel made it clear he would look into it.
“If there is a report, I don’t have it, and once I have it, you will have it,” Werfel reassured the congressman.
Sometimes, he even says things the administration’s critics like to hear. On Monday, he rejected the idea that extra funding could help fix the agency’s problems.
“The solution here is not more money,” Werfel said.
“Mr. Werfel, I’m beginning to like you when you say you don’t need more money,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said. “That’s music to my ears.”
Not everyone is pleased with Werfel's level of responsiveness: Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.) is still waiting to hear exactly how many non-profits' tax-exempt applications are pending before the IRS, since it appears to be almost twice as many as Werfel suggested on Monday.
Nonetheless, by the end of Thursday’s House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing, the panel’s chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) made it clear he and others were placing their faith in Werfel to fix the troubled agency.
“No doubt something bad happened,” Issa said. “It didn’t happen on your watch, but you’re the person we’re looking to to take immediate and decisive action."