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Impeachment hearings are latest victory in conservative war on IRS

IRS Commissioner John Koskinen is being sworn in at the start of a hearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform committee on July 23, 2014. (Harrer/Bloomberg)

The House Judiciary Committee’s decision to hold hearings a week from today on whether to impeach IRS Commissioner John Koskinen is a victory for the chamber’s far-right caucus, still smarting over the agency’s treatment of conservative groups.

Over five years, House Republicans have slashed the IRS budget, passed bills banning employee bonuses and prohibiting employees fired for misconduct from getting rehired. The GOP has vowed to simplify the tax code, pounced on agency management failures and assailed customer service breakdowns caused by the budget cuts.

And last week, anti-IRS lawmakers persuaded previously hesitant House leaders to start the unusual process of removing the tax collector from office.

[Inside the GOP campaign to impeach the IRS commissioner]

One of the biggest questions now is whether the 76-year-old tax commissioner will show up for the grilling. IRS officials said Monday they have made no decision on whether Koskinen will accept the Judiciary Committee’s invitation to appear May 24 and at a hearing in June.

“The IRS continues to discuss hearing logistics with the House Judiciary Committee,” the agency said in a statement provided by spokesman Dean Patterson. Koskinen has cooperated with four congressional investigations stemming from the IRS’s handling of applications from conservative groups, the statement said, “and will continue to do so.”

“Commissioner Koskinen has also said previously that he has testified fully, truthfully and to the best of his ability during his numerous previous congressional hearings on this matter.”

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

The GOP’s seven-month effort to oust Koskinen, whose term does not end until November 2017, is nonetheless a long shot, experts say, given the short congressional calendar remaining before the November elections and procedural hurdles.

Impeachment of an agency leader is rare. The last time Congress brought similar articles of impeachment was in 1876, after the House uncovered evidence of a pattern of corruption by War Secretary William Belknap.

But by allowing hearings to go forward, House leaders are letting IRS opponents keep their constituents’ frustration with an unpopular agency in the foreground — and a good political target in their crosshairs.

The Justice Department formally closed its investigation of the scandal last fall without filing criminal charges. But Republicans have continued to press their case.

The two congressmen leading the charge for impeachment, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), chairman of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus, had for months received little traction with Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.). But things have shifted, at least partway.

[Top Republican to IRS: You say you’re broke. How can you afford 700 new employees?]

“A lot of people have to warm up to the idea” of impeachment, Chaffetz acknowledged in an interview. “But we’re not letting go of this one.”

The effort stems from 2013, when the IRS inspector general reported that the tax-exempt division gave extra scrutiny to conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status. Partisan hearings and investigations by Congress preceded Koskinen, a fix-it executive from the corporate world who was brought in by President Obama to repair the damage.

But Republicans accuse Koskinen of covering up his staff’s mistakes in providing information to House investigators who asked for emails written by the central official in the scandal, Lois Lerner. In articles of impeachment Chaffetz filed last October, he charged that Koskinen erased backup computer files containing thousands of emails written by Lerner. Koskinen had told lawmakers his staff turned over all of the relevant emails, and when some were found to be missing, said they were unrecoverable.

“Despite repeated congressional efforts to get to the bottom of this matter, Obama Administration officials, including the IRS Commissioner, have consistently undermined the investigation,” Goodlatte said in a statement on the Judiciary Committee website. The hearings “will closely examine Commissioner Koskinen’s misconduct and the implications of his actions.”

Chaffetz, Jordan and several other IRS detractors serve on the committee, and Chaffetz said he expects to testify against Koskinen next week. At the  June hearing, outside experts are expected to weigh in on whether impeachment is warranted.

Chaffetz has been in conversations with colleagues about a vote on the lesser but still harsh charge of a censure. He reiterated his support for censure this week, calling the hearings a good way to lay the groundwork. But he said he and Jordan still will press Ryan to bring impeachment to the House floor.

But a partisan impeachment could be a distraction during the volatile presidential campaign. Congress has relatively few legislative days left on the calendar, and they are likely to be taken up by more pressing issues.

The House has impeached just 19 public officials, including 15 federal judges, the war secretary, a senator and Presidents Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, according to the Congressional Research Service. The Senate has conducted 16 full impeachment trials: Half resulted in convictions of federal judges.

Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), chairman of the House Ways and Means oversight panel, told Politico earlier this month that proceeding with impeachment is not realistic. “By mid-July, the congressional year will essentially be done,” he said.