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Inside Republicans’ backup plan to punish the IRS chief

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) (left) and IRS Commissioner John Koskinen

This post has been updated.

Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has been on a campaign since last October to impeach — literally — the tax collector.

But the Utah Republican has found little appetite among House leaders to call for a hearing, much less a vote to remove John Koskinen as head of the beleaguered Internal Revenue Service. Instead, Chaffetz says he is in conversations with his GOP colleagues about a vote on the lesser but still harsh charge of a censure.

“My foremost goal is impeachment and I’m not letting go of it,” Chaffetz said in an interview. “But if censure is the right precursor while we go through the process of educating our members, I have a [censure] bill drafted and ready to go.”

[House Republicans, in last-ditch effort, move to impeach IRS chief]

Chaffetz and his fellow Republicans have a slew of grievances against Koskinen’s management of the tax agency he took over in 2013, and last week the House passed six anti-I.R.S. bills by party-line votes to mark Tax Day.

But the effort to remove Koskinen stems from a scandal that preceded him — the IRS’s treatment of conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status. And since his five-year term ends in November 2017, the GOP effort to oust him could drag on beyond the Obama presidency.

Chaffetz says Koskinen should be impeached for violating the public trust and lying to Congress as it investigated the IRS’s singling out of conservative groups for scrutiny. The congressman has accused the commissioner of erasing back-up computer files containing thousands of e-mails written by Lois Lerner, the central IRS official in the scandal. Koskinen has told lawmakers his staff turned over all e-mails that were relevant to the investigation, and when some were found to be missing, said they were unrecoverable.

Chaffetz filed his articles of impeachment days after the Justice Department closed its investigation of the case and declined to file criminal charges.

“The Department of Justice should have taken action itself,” Chaffetz said. “We’ve got to stand up for ourselves. Our constituents are fed up with the inaction of the House.”

[A standard dejection in the IRS help line]

A censure resolution, rare in Congress’s modern history and far more common against lawmakers than government officials, would be a formal rebuke that states the House’s lack of confidence in Koskinen and calls on President Obama to fire him.

It would fall short of outright impeachment, with no real consequence other than the announcement of the vote itself and a good measure of humiliation.

Democrats dismissed both efforts as wasteful partisanship.

“Nobody who has examined this issue has identified any evidence of political targeting — not the Justice Department, not the Republican Inspector General of the IRS, and not even the Oversight Committee,” Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) the panel’s ranking member, said in a statement. “Republicans have wasted tens of millions of taxpayer dollars chasing false political conspiracy theories.”

Chaffetz says he now has 60 co-sponsors for his impeachment resolution. But he acknowledged that it has gotten little traction with House leaders, including the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which would need to approve the measure. The House leadership spent last week focusing on IRS reforms but did not seek to highlight the effort to oust the agency’s leader.

[The Republican campaign to impeach the IRS chief: What comes next]

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), when asked about the impeachment effort earlier this month, said “the IRS is not being led well” and “misled Americans” but stopped well short of backing Koskinen’s ouster.

“What I think we need to do is win an election … get better people in these agencies and reform the tax code so we’re not harassing the average taxpayer with a tax code they can’t even understand,” Ryan said. His spokeswoman, AshLee Strong declined to comment on Chaffetz’s censure proposal.

The Judiciary panel, meanwhile, has kept busy on other issues, including an ambitious reform of criminal sentencing and a rewrite of drug laws to address a spike in narcotics abuse. Spokeswoman Jessica Collins said only that the committee “continues to review” the impeachment resolution.

Earlier this month, a half-dozen Republican lawmakers — most of them members of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus — went to the House floor to call for Koskinen’s impeachment in a mostly empty chamber.

“It’s really a question of the House’s self-respect: How much longer can we as elected officials allow the bureaucracy to simply walk all over the Congress? said Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), who has been among the most vocal advocates for Koskinen’s ouster.

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said he is “still talking and still pushing” with House leadership to get impeachment articles considered, but he welcomed Chaffetz’s censure proposal.

“Getting the ball moving make sense,” Jordan said. “How that is manifest, I’m open to all kinds of ideas. All I know is that what this guy did was wrong, and he deserves to be impeached, so let’s get it moving.”

An IRS spokesman said in a statement, “Commissioner Koskinen and the IRS workforce remain focused on wrapping up work on a successful filing season for the nation’s taxpayers. In addition, we continue making progress on a number of important issues involving taxpayer service, tax enforcement and cybersecurity.”

White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters last week that President Obama has full confidence in his tax commissioner.

“Mr. Koskinen has an extraordinarily difficult job, and it’s made only more difficult because Republicans seek to try to cut the funding of his agency,” Earnest said. “He is somebody who undertakes that work with a lot of professionalism and seriousness of purpose, and he deserves our gratitude for his good work.

Congress, led by House Republicans, has slashed the IRS budget by about $1 billion over the last five years. Customer service has deteriorated as a result. One of the measures passed last week requires bonuses to be withheld from every employee until customer service improves.

Said Chaffetz: “Look at all the problems at the IRS. The list has grown beyond the destruction of evidence. Just because there’s eight months left in the administration does not mean you let improper acts go.”

Alice Crites contributed to this story