House Republicans on Wednesday voted to hold former Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress. At least she can rest assured that she’s not alone: Just about everyone else in the country has contempt for Congress too. The mood will likely worsen as we get closer to the midterm election and as the congressional kangaroo committees waste more valuable time and money chasing conspiracy theories instead of addressing crucial national needs.
First, Lerner. It’s galling that the House is pursuing action against someone for invoking a constitutional right. Lerner was held in contempt for invoking her 5th Amendment protection against self-incrimination during earlier hearings, when she argued that San Diego Republican Darrell Issa’s House Oversight and Government Reform Committee had improperly accused her of providing false information. But committee Republicans argued that Lerner waived her right to invoke the 5th Amendment because she testified briefly and proclaimed her innocence.
“Declaring one’s innocence is not a waiver of the privilege against self-incrimination,” says Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of UC Irvine’s School of Law. “If a person is being questioned by the police and says, ‘I am innocent but I am not answering any other questions because I am invoking my 5th Amendment privilege against self-incrimination,’ there is no waiver at all. The statement, ‘I am innocent,’ could be introduced as evidence (or anything the person says). But just declaring that is not a waiver. Put another way, the 5th Amendment says ‘nor shall be compelled in any case to be a witness against himself.’ That is the language in the 5th Amendment. Saying I am innocent cannot be seen as waiving that.”
Yet House Republicans are chasing Lerner anyway in what can only be viewed as a witch hunt to try to keep the right-wing base happy for the midterm election cycle. Whether Lerner was guilty of a crime in the IRS’ ham-fisted targeting of tea party-related nonprofits is something for the legal system to determine, not a bunch of vote-thirsty Republican House members. The House’s decision to seek a special prosecutor should be viewed through the same prism: grandstanding, not a desire to seek facts or truth. (Whether the votes will lead to anything is doubtful because Congress can’t force the Justice Department to act.)
A similar conclusion of politics run amok is the only real assessment of House Speaker John A. Boehner’s decision to form a select committee to investigate the Obama administration’s handling of the terror attacks in Benghazi that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three others. Boehner says the hearings won’t be a circus; it’s too late for that. Compounding the cynical use of congressional oversight for political gain: Republicans’ unseemly efforts to raise money from the tragedy.
Here’s a thought. Why doesn’t Congress expand its vision beyond the members’ reelections and power grabs, and the echo chamber of Washington, and focus on some issues that affect the rest of the country? Climate change is here, and needs addressing. There’s a persistent lack of jobs paying a livable wage. Income inequality threatens community and political cohesion. Our infrastructure is in shambles. Then there are the endless escalating costs of basic healthcare, and the endless escalating costs of a college education. And the list goes on.
Does the country really need another pass at such pawed-over ground as the IRS scandal and Benghazi? No. But it does need some engaged legislating. And that is what voters should remember this fall, not the charade of congressional outrage.