Debt limit crises are so 2013. House Republican hardliners have found a new outlet to express their frustration with President Obama’s tyrannical rule — and with the GOP leadership’s foot-dragging — in the form an impeachment vote against a mid-level figure in the administration.
The move, deemed unprecedented by some congressional scholars, comes as Republicans had sought to keep their members in line ahead of what has been an already treacherous election for the GOP. Caught in the crosshairs is IRS Commissioner John Koskinen (pictured), the bureaucrat who was brought in to clean up a controversy at the tax agency and who now faces an impeachment vote this week. GOP leaders gave their rank-and-file plenty of venues to vent about what they have deemed a botched investigation into allegations that the IRS was targeting conservative groups. Their efforts to tamp down the rebellion were rebuffed by procedural moves led by House Freedom Caucus members Tuesday.
Led by Rep. John Fleming (R-LA) and Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-KS), the hardliners have filed what is known as “privileged resolution,” which in effect, will force some sort of House vote in the next two days on whether to impeach Koskinen, who has been swept up in the so-called IRS “targeting scandal,” which pre-dated his appointment to the top spot at the IRS and in which he was not involved.
His critics charge that he lied or misled members in congressional testimony about the state of the investigation – a charge that has been elevated to ”high crimes and misdemeanors,” the constitutional standard for the rarely used impeachment process.
“John Andrew Koskinen engaged in a pattern of deception that demonstrates his unfitness to serve as a Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service,” Fleming said on the floor Tuesday, while introducing the resolution. “Commissioner Koskinen made a series of false and misleading statements to Congress in contravention of his oath to tell the truth.”
Rep. John Fleming
The move appeared to be in defiance of Speaker Paul Ryan. At a press conference last week, Ryan said the next steps on the impeachment matter were going to be a planning conference among members this week.
For the hardliners pushing the effort, the calculus is rooted in riling their base, according to Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
“One way to generate anger in the Republican tribe is to suggest that the Obama administration has conducted a war on them. If you attach that to the IRS, it’s fundraising and base gold,” Ornstein said.
Indeed, Fleming is running in a packed race for Louisiana’s Senate seat, and has been campaigning explicitly on the impeachment effort. (Huelskamp lost his primary last month).
For the leadership, the vote presents a highly partisan, highly-politicized flashpoint, as the GOP tries to delivers its closing argument to voters that it can govern responsibly. Beyond what Koskinen is being accused of, his very position makes the effort unprecedented. The House has never successfully impeached a sub-cabinet official, according to the congressional testimony of Michael Gerhardt, a law professor at the University of North Carolina.
“Leaders tend to not want these wedge issues, which are going to put their own members in a tough spot with a vote on the floor,” Sarah Binder, a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, told TPM, pointing specifically to “the remaining moderates in that conference who may be facing a tough election.”
The desire to subject Koskinen to a show trial was apparent not long after he took over as head of the IRS in late 2013, well after concerns about the agency’s practices had been raised. The agency had been accused of giving undue scrutiny to the tax exemption status of certain conservative groups, many of them with the words “tea party” or “patriot” in their names. Republicans now say that in the congressional hearings that began months after Koskinen was installed to get the agency in line, he misled them on the investigation into the controversy. Their claims center around the emails of Lois Lerner, a former agency figure central to the episode. Thousands of Lerner’s emails went missing due to a hard drive being inadvertently destroyed, and Republicans accused Koskinen of deceiving them on when and how the emails were lost.
In this May 22, 2013 file photo, Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner walks out of a House Oversight Committee hearing after refusing to answer questions.
In the spring of 2014, Koskinen testified that the agency was still working on retrieving the emails, only to tell Congress in June of that year that some had been deemed irretrievable because the back-up drives had been destroyed. A 2015 inspector general’s report found that the back-up drives had been erased by mistake by two IRS employees in late-night decision with which Koskinen was not involved. Nevertheless, the drumbeat among conservatives grew louder that the mix-up amounted to a fireable offense.
Koskinen never had an easy job ahead of him when he the accepted position of head of the agency that, in the best of days, is the target of ire from Republicans and the public alike. He has previously served in both Republican and Democratic administrations, including leading the government’s Y2K preparations, as well as overseeing Freddie Mac in the fallout of the 2008 economic crisis. He was well into his 70s when he agreed to clean up the mess at the IRS.
“If you are looking for a model of public service alive today, you would look to John Koskinen,” said Ornstein, who wrote a piece for The Atlantic in June lamenting the House GOP jihad against him.
A formal resolution for his impeachment introduced last October went nowhere in the House Judiciary Committee. Hardliners were able to wrangle a hearing in May vaguely on the matter with the threat that they would push for a full House floor vote otherwise. They did so anyway, first with a privilege motion filed in July that expired because of the summer recess, and now, with the latest version, which is expected to force a vote later this week, likely Thursday.
While many conservatives have sought to tar Koskinen over his handling of the investigation, other Republicans have stopped short of impugning his character and have balked at the idea of impeachment.
“We can have our disagreements with him, but that doesn’t mean there’s an impeachable offense, [and] for the most part, he’s been very cooperative with us,” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), who participated in the IRS investigation hearings on the Senate side, told reporters in May.
Likewise, Republican leaders haven’t showed much eagerness for an impeachment measure. Speaker Ryan, who took part in some of the early roughing up of Koskinen in a 2014 hearing, signaled last spring that his priority was the 2016 election, not impeachment.
An additional ingredient in the relentless drive to impeach Koskinen may be the sense that GOP leaders in both chambers are preparing to push through spending legislation that conservative hardliners oppose. The legislation, which will keep the government funded past the current deadline at the end of September, will set-up a lame duck fight over a longer-term spending package. Some Republicans in the House would prefer funding legislation that lasts through next spring.
“This looks like, from the outside, that the Freedom Caucus is taking matters into their own hands,” Binder said, “and make a point and to get votes and to pursue a particular agenda, knowing they can get pretty far with this tactic, where they can’t get trying to push the House into shutting the government down.”