Noah Rothman / May 13, 2016
Nearly two years have passed since IRS Commissioner John Koskinen’s famous testimony before the House Oversight Committee. His testimony in relation to the scandalous claim that its tax exemption division tied up the applications of conservative groups and, thus, limited their ability to participate in political activities in 2012 was judged by many to be unsatisfactory, at best. For those less inclined to be so charitable, Koskinen’s testimony was deemed insulting, flippant, and actively misleading. On Friday, House Republicans invited the IRS commissioner back to Capitol Hill, but the offer was hardly cordial. Koskinen will be testifying in hearings that will determine whether or not the House of Representatives will vote to impeach him over the allegation that he misled Congress and violated the terms of a subpoena.
In announcing their intention to pursue impeachment in the summer of a presidential election year, congressional Republicans open themselves up to the charge that this is all a political stunt. There are few working days left on the calendar prior to the close of this Congress, and the Obama administration is closing up shop. It has been long enough since Koskinen’s name was in the news that this charge is likely to stick to Republicans. And while there is certainly a political element to these hearings – there is a political element to most public spectacles in Washington in an election year – anyone with an interest in good governance and the sovereignty of the public over class sneering, contemptuous appointed bureaucrats should applaud this move.
In Congressional testimony, Koskinen assured investigators that the IRS targeting controversy was a hollow shell of a scandal; not because there was no evidence to support the allegation that the implicated department’s former commissioner Lois Lerner had behaved appropriately, but because any evidence of her malfeasance had been destroyed. He contended that her email communications were lost, that “backup tapes” had been summarily and routinely erased, her hard drives destroyed, and that the public should probably move on. Hillary Clinton might have been the only person in America who witnessed this display and thought Koskinen was on to something.
The ensuing months were not kind to Koskinen’s account of events. By November, the IRS Inspector General’s office discovered some 30,000 supposedly missing emails were, in fact, recoverable. “They just said it took them several weeks and some forensic effort to get these emails off these tapes,” a congressional aide told the Washington Examiner. The House Oversight Committee later revealed that the IG’s office found “an impact of some sort” had likely caused Lerner’s hard drive crash, and that they discovered “scoring on the top platter of the drive.” Those emails that House investigators did receive from the IRS or which turned up after FOIA requests revealed that Lerner had a distinctly negative opinion of the “crazies” who populate right-wing political groups, and that she had investigated the prospects for prosecuting conservative organizations exclusively.
Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration Deputy Inspector General for Investigations Tim Camus later revealed that the emails House investigators requested and never received were “right where you would expect them to be.” He added that he could not rule out the prospect that Lerner had engaged in “potential criminal activity.” Lerner was later cleared by the Justice Department of deliberate malfeasance, but they declined to exonerate the IRS. “Our investigation uncovered substantial evidence of mismanagement, poor judgment, and institutional inertia, leading to the belief by many tax-exempt applicants that the IRS targeted
There will be plenty of Democrats who insist that Koskinen is the target of a politically motivated witch-hunt. They’ll insist, as some already have, that this is an effort by terminally partisan conservatives to distract from their lack of focus on the important issues, like the weather and transgender bathroom access. More creative Democrats will contend that this impeachment is a preview of how a GOP-led Congress will behave under a second Clinton presidency. In truth, Democrats benefit in the long run as much as Republicans from seeking to restore faith in one of America’s most powerful law enforcement organizations (and the IRS is precisely that). The party of government, the party of income equality, redistribution, and the promise of social engineering though the tax code benefits from a public that trusts its tax collectors.
Those on the left who think it a grand idea to brand the GOP’s targeting of Koskinen a political move by the party that hates tax collectors will find Republicans are in righteous and voluminous company. With their party set to nominate a figure who is little trusted and viewed by many as corrupt, Democrats might be well served by providing a good word or two for the pursuit of accountability and good governance at one of the nation’s most unloved institutions. I have little doubt they will not take this advice.