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May 24 — Republican lawmakers flexed their muscles in a two-hour House Judiciary Committee hearing examining IRS chief John Koskinen’s behavior following allegations that the IRS singled out conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
“Don't mess with Congress,” said Rep. Blake Farenthold (R-Texas) during the May 24 hearing. Farenthold co-sponsored legislation to impeach Koskinen, part of a years-long attack from several hard-right Republican lawmakers, many of them members of the House Freedom Caucus.
At issue during the hearing were e-mails from former agency official Lois Lerner on groups that should be granted exempt status—which lawmakers said the Internal Revenue Service failed to look for—as well as backup tapes that were destroyed while the agency was under subpoena. Republican lawmakers at the hearing said Koskinen—who did not appear—failed to comply with the subpoena and didn't provide accurate testimony to Congress (208 DTR G-4, 10/28/15).
“It's frustrating because if a taxpayer treated the IRS the way the IRS has treated Congress, that just wouldn't fly,” said Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), who testified at the hearing. “If they ask you to do certain things and you just decide not to do it—I have yet to find somebody who thinks that would be acceptable.”
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who also testified, said during the hearing that Koskinen “actively misled Congress,” and said he sees impeachment as an opportunity to punish the agency head rather than “continuing to whine and complain about the lack of action in the executive branch.” Chaffetz introduced a resolution on May 18 to censure Koskinen, which he said he sees as a step toward that goal (97 DTR G-3, 5/19/16).
Lawmakers debated whether the IRS intentionally destroyed documents while under subpoena. Rep. Hakeem Jefferies (D-N.Y.) noted that the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration found in his investigation into the topic that the underlying act “if anything, was based on incompetence” and was not a criminal offense.
But Chaffetz said incompetence as well as intent could be elements of impeachment. He said not only did the IRS destroy the documents, but Koskinen failed to correct the record after providing “misleading” testimony.
“Our case doesn't solely rely on intent, that's my point,” Chaffetz told reporters. “The standard of proof is different than it would be on a traditional criminal matter.”
Impeaching Koskinen, whose five-year term wraps up in November 2017, would be a distinct break from precedent: No executive agency head has been impeached in more than 140 years.
Neither Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) nor House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) have backed the idea (98 DTR G-6, 5/20/16).
Koskinen, who took over the agency in 2013, was not in government at the time the scandal about targeting tax-exempt groups broke. He has maintained that he provided accurate testimony to Congress and said in a written statement that he would be willing to cooperate further.
According to his statement, the charges have “no substance” and the IRS spent more than $20 million to produce about 1.3 million pages of documents.
“I acted in good faith in my efforts to comply with all Congressional requests related to the investigations,” Koskinen said in the statement. He added that impeaching him would make it challenging to attract new leaders to the agency when they are most needed to make changes and respond to investigations.
“That would be a great loss for the government and for the country,” he said.
But Republicans on the committee—who barred Koskinen's statement from the record—didn't buy it. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) called it “self-serving” and vehemently opposed adding it to the record.
“On what basis do we allow unsworn testimony from what should have been a testimony? This is Lois Lerner revisited,” Issa said.
Secretary of Treasury Jacob Lew said in a May 24 statement that the House of Representatives should focus on the American people, not a “political agenda.” He said Koskinen is an “outstanding public servant” with vast experience and a track record of cooperating with Congress.
“It is critical that John has the tools he needs to keep his focus on driving the important work the IRS conducts on behalf of the American people,” Lew said in his statement.
Jefferies, the Democrat from New York, called the investigation “a remedy in search of a problem.”
Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.) said the committee should prioritize issues at the IRS such as identity theft, constituents who can't get questions answered by phone and the complexity of the tax code.
“The real elephant in the room today is that the IRS does have significant issues, substantiated ones, that Congress should be talking about,” she said.
The hearing was not without its more unique moments—and metaphors.
As part of his testimony, Chaffetz played a 10-minute video outlining the charges against the IRS and displayed large poster boards with several quotes from Koskinen at previous hearings.
Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) said the IRS's response to the investigation had an “eerie similarity” to the Watergate scandal.
“We have government officials persecuting their political enemies, going after them using the IRS and other agencies. The difference is, unlike Watergate, we have lost the tape,” he said.
The committee will hold a second hearing in June, and outside analysts will review the case for impeachment.
“The bones are a little creaky on this topic and we look forward to hearing from experts about the remedies available,” Chaffetz told reporters.
Chaffetz told reporters he hopes to see a standalone vote on his censure resolution instead of having it “buried in some piece of legislation.”
When asked how he responds to critics who say his push stands no chance in the Senate, Chaffetz said he doesn't want “to give up too soon.” Removing an official from office requires a House majority and a trial and guilty finding in the Senate.
“If we live by what the Senate wants to do, we’ll never get anything done,” he said.
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Text of Koskinen's statement is available at http://src.bna.com/fhI.
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