Republicans, who control the panel, set the tone from the hearing’s opening moments, blasting Koskinen for not showing up to testify. Committee leaders refused to allow his written statement denying the charges against him to be allowed in the record.
“John Koskinen was invited to testify today and declined,” said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) “This is a self-serving statement of someone who chose not to be here, but tomorrow will be in front of another committee.”
Issa, as chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, had led a series of high-profile investigations from 2012 to 2014 into the IRS’s extra scrutiny of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status.
The agency admitted to poor judgment and even mismanagement, but for Republicans, the issue became a cause celebre in their frustration with the Obama administration and eventually with Koskinen, who was brought in by the president in 2013 to clean things up.
On Tuesday, Utah Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Issa’s successor on the oversight committee, testified to Judiciary members that Koskinen deserves to be ousted from office. The reasons go back to a combination of incompetence and willfulness, Chaffetz said: Koskinen misled lawmakers when he told them he would hand over thousands of emails written and received by the central figure in the scandal, now-retired IRS official Lois Lerner.
When it turned out that the agency had destroyed the records, Koskinen took months to tell Congress, Chaffetz said. And he didn’t work hard enough to locate backups, which eventually were found by the agency’s inspector general.
“Providing false testimony before Congress comes with a consequence, at least it should,” Chaffetz told the committee, in an unusual role as a witness. “It’s a crime.” He said that on Koskinen’s watch, 422 backup tapes containing more than 20,000 of Lerner’s emails were destroyed.
But Koskinen, who said he would not attend because he did not have time to prepare after returning from China on May 13, said in a written statement that the emails were destroyed before he knew about it. He also said that impeaching him would set an “unfortunate precedent” that could warn young people off government work.
The committee’s top Democrat assailed the four articles of impeachment Republicans have introduced against Koskinen as partisan grandstanding that would require a lengthy investigation and be roundly defeated in the Senate.
“The resolution fails by every measure,” Rep. John Conyers, Jr. (D-Mich.) said. “It arises from the worst partisan instincts. It is not based on the facts. And it has virtually no chance in the Senate.”
Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) called the IRS’s treatment of conservative groups a “political plan” to silence them.
The hearing was long sought by Republicans still aggrieved over the IRS’s treatment of conservative groups. Several investigations, most recently by the Justice Department, found no evidence of malicious or criminal behavior by agency employees, but rather poor judgment.
Chaffetz countered that those probes focused on Lerner, not on the tax collector himself.
It became clear early on that the proceedings were as much about Koskinen’s alleged misleading of Congress as about Republicans’ dislike for the IRS.
“The IRS is the only entity of which I’m aware in the federal government that can ignore the Constitution as part of its job,” said Rep.Louie Goehmert (R-Tex.). “They can take people’s money without due process. They can take their property. It’s important that the agents that work for this agency must be completely overwhelmed with integrity… That’s where the stink is getting overwhelming — at the level of supervisors and above.”
Democrats who have defended the IRS as their GOP colleagues have declared war on the agency, its budget and its employees in recent years said Congress should be addressing poor customer service that’s resulted from the budget cuts, not a scandal that has long been resolved.
“I just think that this is, respectfully, a remedy in search of a problem,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), calling the impeachment effort a “taxpayer-funded fishing expedition.”
While Democrats acknowledged that the IRS under Koskinen’s leadership may have been mismanaged and even incompetent, Republicans said that incompetence qualifies as an impeachable offense.
“I’ve always believed that failure to do your duties is impeachable,” Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) said. “It doesn’t have to be a crime.”
The Judiciary committee is considering action it has not taken since 1876, the last time the House impeached an administration official who was not a president. (The man in the hot seat then was Secretary of War William W. Belknap, who was accused of corruption. He resigned before the proceedings were over).
Just two witnesses testified Tuesday, Chaffetz and Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), a member of the hard-line Freedom Caucus.
Chaffetz began his turn as the hearing’s star witness by showing a lengthy video on the scandal, with news clips and a voiceover by a member of his staff.
The film reprised the long-investigated saga.
“There must be accountability!” the narrator says.
Conyers asked Chaffetz whether negligence was really an impeachable offense. “Are we talking about we don’t like the way they’re doing business?,” he said.
The Democrat then said he could not arrive at a judgment on whether Koskinen should be impeached without a full investigation.
“Is this being a little heavy-handed about this matter?” Conyers said. He acknowledged that he “probably disagreed with some of the IRS’s conduct myself,” but that a move to impeach the commissioner “ seems to me a little bit overwrought.”
“It seems to me we really ought to move with a little more discussion.”
The Obama administration weighed in Tuesday morning through a statement from Treasury Secretary Jack Lew.
“John Koskinen is an outstanding public servant of the highest integrity,” Lew said. “From the day he began his leadership of the IRS, John and his staff have cooperated with Congress.”
Lew added he has “deep respect” for the House, but that it should focus “on the needs” of Americans, not “the kind of political agenda that an impeachment vote here would represent.”
The Judiciary Committee has scheduled another hearing on impeachment for June, when outside experts are expected to advise lawmakers on whether they have a case.
“He can resolve this and step down now,” Chaffetz said of the tax collector.