Guest Opinion: IRS impeachment overkill
With their customary lack of subtlety, House Republicans are trying to unleash a nuclear bomb to swat the proverbial fly. The fly is IRS Commissioner John Koskinen. The bomb is impeachment, which has been used against an executive-branch official only three times in the nation’s history.
The allegations against Koskinen, while serious, do not rise anywhere near the level of becoming a fourth historic case. An impeachment resolution — which the House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hear testimony on Wednesday — would diminish what's supposed to be a last-resort option for removing a corrupt official for alleged “high crimes and misdemeanors.” The IRS scandal does not qualify; for one thing, Koskinen, 76, wasn't even at the IRS when the underlying scandal occurred.
By overplaying their hand, the Republicans are obscuring serious questions about IRS misuse of its immense power. Koskinen was brought in to clean up the agency after revelations in 2013 that its tax-exempt division had targeted conservative organizations, including Tea Party groups, because of their political beliefs. The IRS sent the groups burdensome inquiries and delayed their applications for tax exemption, stopped some from participating in the 2012 presidential election.
While the IRS has a legitimate role in preventing blatantly political groups from exploiting tax-exempt status, targeting groups based on their politics is reminiscent of Richard Nixon using the IRS to harass his "enemies." Even President Obama acknowledged that such actions were “intolerable and inexcusable.” The scandal spurred congressional hearings, high-level resignations from the IRS and an FBI investigation, which found no criminal wrongdoing.
When Koskinen took over the agency, there was a need for openness and disclosure to get to the bottom of what happened. Instead, Koskinen presided over a “clean-up” marked by disappearing emails, bungled searches for backups, and a penchant for secrecy so strong that the IRS has resisted federal court orders to disclose documents to the groups targeted.
In March, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals blasted the agency for resisting “at every turn” orders to disclose a list of those targeted. The court called the targeting allegations “among the most serious” a federal court can address. The appeals judges rebuked the IRS for using a post-Watergate statute designed to protect taxpayers’ from government mistreatment as a way to avoid disclosing documents. The law, the judges wrote, “was enacted to protect taxpayers from the IRS, not the IRS from taxpayers.”
The trial judge in the same case suggested that government lawyers were trying to drag out the case, "so that by the time there is a result, nobody is going to care except the plaintiffs” — a very astute observation. If government lawyers run out the clock until January, the Obama administration would never have to answer for whatever sins the documents might reveal.
Republicans have good reason to press for release of relevant IRS documents, such as lists of the 426 targeted groups and emails by retired IRS official Lois Lerner, who was at the center of the controversy. But an official censure of Koskinen last week on a party-line vote of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and the looming impeachment threat, are as misplaced as Republicans’ draconian cuts to the IRS budget. As the agency has struggled to do more with less, customer service has withered, identity theft has run rampant and reduced enforcement has allowed tax cheats to get away with more cheating.
If Congress wants to be helpful, it should simplify the absurdly complex tax code and give the IRS enough money to do its job, not waste time on overblown impeachment threats.