What comes next in the House Republicans’ campaign to impeach IRS Commissioner John Koskinen remains unclear following Wednesday’s “misconduct” proceedings, which House Committee on the Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte refused to describe as an “impeachment” hearing.
Members of the committee and legal experts sparred over whether Koskinen’s alleged misconduct of defying congressional subpoenas and providing false testimony to Congress on the IRS targeting scandal rises to the level of gross negligence that meets the “high crimes and misdemeanors” impeachment standard in the U.S. Constitution.
The scandal occurred because hundreds of Tea Party, conservative and evangelical non-profit applicants were targeted and harassed by IRS officials during the 2010 and 2012 election campaigns
Democrats listening to Wednesday’s testimony seized the “misconduct” title of the session, noting that it, like the May proceeding of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on the same topic, was also not described officially with the word “impeachment.”
House Judiciary hearings are normally the first step in an impeachment process, which ultimately must be approved by the House and then tried by the Senate. A committee aide said members will now reflect on what they heard Wednesday before deciding whether Congress should take further action.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican and chairman of the oversight panel, said he wants a censure vote and Koskinen’s impeachment.
“The House has a variety of tools at its option,” Chaffetz told reporters after the hearing. “At the Oversight Committee, we passed out the censure resolution. So there are options for leadership. It’s up to them.”
Chaffetz added that he senses Goodlatte is favorable towards censure. “I see that as a precursor to impeachment,” Chaffetz said.
Koskinen wasn’t invited to Wednesday’s hearing. He was invited to the May hearing but did not appear.
Most of the experts testifying Wednesday agreed that providing false testimony to Congress, which Republicans accuse Koskinen of doing, satisfies the Constitution’s impeachment standard. (RELATED: Committee Calls For Immediate Resignation Of IRS Chief)
But Koskinen’s alleged mis-handling of IRS records — including allowing destruction of thousands of emails to and from Lois Lerner, the former Director of the Exempt Organizations Division at the heart of the targeting scandal — was more controversial.
“You can make mistakes, you can even have bad judgement,” University of North Carolina School of Law constitutional professor, Michael Gerhardt, told the committee. “That doesn’t rise in my opinion to an impeachable offense.”
George Washington University Law Professor Jonathan Turley, disagreed, saying “there are some forms of negligence that rise to the level of criminal conduct.”
Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew McCarthy described the impeachment process as “a political remedy, not a legal one,” with political consequences.
Gerhardt said the consequences of executing impeachment incorrectly are more political than legal for Congress, too.
“If the House simply impeaches and doesn’t have evidence and doesn’t back it up, the consequences are actually political,” Gerhardt said. “A court couldn’t strike that down, I don’t believe.”
“The House has never impeached anyone for gross negligence, or anything akin to it,” Gerhardt said, adding that opening that precedent could present “serious problems.”
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat, worried that impeaching anyone without strong evidence could “chart a different kind of America.”
But Republicans contend they have sufficient cause and evidence.
“Never forget the underlying offense here,” said Ohio Republican Rep. Jim Jordan, who is leading the impeachment charge against Koskinen. “The IRS targeted people for their political beliefs. They got caught. Ms. (Lois) Lerner lied about it.”
“If all that doesn’t warrant us taking this action, I do not know what does,” Jordan added.
It’s time for Congress to reassert its oversight powers and curb executive branch overreach, Jordan said.
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