House Oversight Committee Votes to Censure Koskinen

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By Colleen Murphy

June 15 — The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform voted 23-15—along party lines—to censure IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, a rare step for Congress to take against a presidential appointment.

The resolution (H. Res. 737)—Congress's version of a formal reprimand—calls for the commissioner to step down or for President Barack Obama to remove him. It is the latest development in conservative lawmakers' three-year effort to punish the Internal Revenue Service after learning the agency scrutinized conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.

The June 15 markup was predictably partisan, as Republican lawmakers criticized the tax chief and Democratic lawmakers blasted the resolution. A censure vote is a waste of time, a display of the committee's partisanship and a “black mark” on the committee, several Democratic lawmakers said.

“Creating a hit list to knock off federal officials is not something to be proud of,” Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the committee's ranking member, said.

Proper Punishment

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), the committee’s chairman, called censure a “necessary repercussion” after Koskinen allegedly didn't cooperate with a congressional investigation into the targeting. Koskinen wasn't in government when the targeting took place, but Chaffetz has led an effort to impeach Koskinen for misleading Congress.

Four legal analysts will review the case for impeachment at a June 22 House Judiciary Committee hearing, the second of two (101 DTR G-1, 5/25/16).

The analysts include two law professors as well as Andrew McCarthy, former assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, and Todd Garvey, a legislative attorney in the Library of Congress's American Law Division, according to a June 15 release.

“Complying with a subpoena is mandatory, it's not optional,” Chaffetz said at the markup. “Because of the actions of Mr. Koskinen, Americans will never learn the truth about how or why their first amendment rights were violated.”

No agency official has been impeached in more than 140 years, and successfully impeaching Koskinen would require a House majority, and a trial and guilty finding in the Senate.

The IRS hasn't yet announced if Koskinen will appear at next week's hearing. Koskinen has previously said he testified truthfully to Congress, and isn't concerned about the threat of impeachment.

Amendments, Criticism

Cummings successfully introduced an amendment to change a date of Koskinen's previous testimony in the resolution, which Democratic lawmakers said was necessary to show Koskinen didn't purposefully conceal information. Chaffetz introduced an amendment to Cummings's amendment, which also passed, supporting the change. Both amendments passed on voice votes.

An amendment from Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) failed on a 15-21 vote. The amendment would recognize findings from the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration that Koskinen had been cooperative and IRS employees weren't politically motivated in screening conservative groups' applications.

Some Republican lawmakers criticized Cartwright's amendment for going easy on Koskinen—the last section refers to him as “an honorable public servant who has been extraordinarily cooperative.”

“Are you kidding me?” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said. “This is laughable.”

Going ‘Nowhere.'

Top Republican leadership hasn't supported the idea of impeaching Koskinen, nor have these lawmakers promised to hold a censure vote on the House floor. Some have said impeachment is unlikely because of limited time remaining in the legislative calendar.

Though a floor vote on censure might not happen, a tax attorney told Bloomberg BNA June 14 that the damage could already be done within the IRS—employees feel unsupported by Congress and overworked because of staffing cuts, she said (115 DTR G-2, 6/15/16).

Democratic lawmakers said censure was an unnecessary punishment. The committee was unfairly chastising Koskinen for the IRS's “misdeeds,” Del. Stacey Plasket (D-V.I.) said.

“We can't in fact destroy the IRS, so we then decided to target the head,” she said, adding it could hurt the ability of federal agencies to attract talented leaders in the future.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) chided the committee for its partisanship. Censure “means nothing” and “will go nowhere,” she said, adding that it is clear that what the committee “really wants is to do an impeachment, but even its own leadership won't stomach that.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Colleen Murphy in Washington at cmurphy@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Brett Ferguson at bferguson@bna.com