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Opinion

Editorial: Don’t impeach the IRS commissioner

John Koskinen
Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Commissioner John Koskinen testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington in Feb. 2016.
(Manuel Balce Ceneta / Associated Press)

The House of Representatives is expected to vote this week on whether to impeach John Koskinen. the commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service. It would be the first impeachment of an executive branch official other than the president since 1876.

The so-called privileged resolution to impeach Koskinen, which bypasses usual House procedure, is a preposterous exercise in ideological politics. Defeating it may require some profiles in courage from the GOP leadership.

The effort to impeach Koskinen, which is being led by the far-right House Freedom Caucus, is the latest installment of a long-running controversy over the alleged “targeting” by the IRS of tea party affiliates and other conservative groups that had sought tax-exempt status. In May 2013, an inspector general in the  Treasury Department concluded that between 2010 and 2012, the agency had used “inappropriate criteria” — such as the terms “tea party” and “patriot” — in identifying applications for review.

Koskinen didn’t become commissioner until December 2013, but had to deal with the political aftershocks of the controversy, including investigations by outraged Republicans in Congress. Those seeking his impeachment claim that he failed to comply with a subpoena for records associated with the scrutiny of conservative groups and that he provided false and misleading information to Congress.

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But the bill of particulars that accompanies the resolution proves, at most, that Koskinen wasn’t as attentive to the importance of securing records sought by Congress as he should have been. It’s also clear that he misspoke when he told a congressional committee that ”every email”  associated with Lois Lerner, a former IRS official responsible for tax-exempt groups, had been preserved; in fact, IRS employees in West Virginia had erased as many as 24,000 of her emails. (A Treasury Department inspector general found no evidence that the erasures were a deliberate attempt to destroy evidence.) But inaccurate or incomplete testimony isn’t the same as willfully lying to Congress.     

In short, there is nothing to suggest that Koskinen is guilty of the “high crimes and misdemeanors” the Constitution cites as grounds for impeachment. And even if the House were to vote to impeach him, there is no chance that the Senate would provide the two-thirds majority necessary for a conviction. 

The GOP’s ire at the apparent targeting of conservative tax-exempt groups is understandable, but that’s not the only thing motivating the Freedom Caucus. Instead, the attempt to impeach Koskinen is a political exercise that can’t be divorced from longstanding efforts by conservatives to demonize and defund the IRS. More directly, it’s tied to Republicans’ apparent determination to stop the IRS from enforcing the law barring political campaigns from masquerading as charities. If the House were to impeach the commissioner — or even censure him — the reputation of that body would suffer and members would be tempted to use the impeachment power to push other pet political causes. The only fair outcome is for the House to refer the resolution to the panel the Freedom Caucus is trying to bypass, the House Judiciary Committee. The resolution is likely to die there, as it should.

Responsible Republicans — including Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy — need to support that action and stand against this abuse of the impeachment power.

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