A dramatic House vote on the impeachment of Internal Revenue Service Commissioner John Koskinen has been delayed, if not averted entirely, by a last-minute deal between GOP leaders and the hard-line conservative members who could have forced the vote on Thursday.
Koskinen is expected to appear next week before the House Judiciary Committee, which is examining impeachment articles related to the destruction of emails subpoenaed by Congress, after declining to testify before the panel earlier this year. Because the committee has not advanced the impeachment proceedings, members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus filed a special motion to bring the matter directly to the House floor.
The caucus declared victory in a statement late Wednesday, saying the hearing would “give every American the opportunity to hear John Koskinen answer under oath why he misled Congress, allowed evidence pertinent to an investigation to be destroyed, and defied Congressional subpoenas and preservation orders.”
“It will also remove any lingering excuses for those who have been hesitant to proceed with this course of action,” the statement read.
A spokeswoman for the Judiciary Committee confirmed next week’s hearing. Lawyers for Koskinen did not immediately reply to a message seeking comment. He has strongly denied any wrongdoing, and his lawyers wrote in a Sept. 8 letter to Judiciary Committee leaders that he would be willing to appear before the panel and answer questions under oath.
“All that we seek is the use of traditional processes and standards,” wrote the lawyers from the WilmerHale firm.
The impeachment vote that had been set for Thursday threatened to pit the Freedom Caucus and their desire to hold the Obama administration to account against not only the White House and congressional Democrats, but also moderate Republicans and a broader desire for “regular order” — in which the House takes action through the relevant committees, empowering their chairmen to decide what measures are sent to the floor.
Had the impeachment measure come to the House floor Thursday, it likely would have been subject to a vote to table, killing its progress. Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) worked with moderate Republicans, including Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), to round up roughly three dozen GOP members to join with Democrats to table the measure. They targeted Republicans who were either skeptical that Koskinen’s alleged offenses deserved impeachment or that he should be impeached through an abbreviated process.
Rep. John Fleming (R-La.), the co-sponsor of the impeachment resolution, said late Wednesday that he was pleased there would be a “formal impeachment hearing” for Koskinen but reserved the right to force a floor vote in the future: “[I]f regular order is not followed through with we still reserve the right to bring up a privileged resolution again in November and go directly to a vote.”
IRS spokesman Matthew Leas said the agency was in touch with the Judiciary Committee Thursday about the timing of the hearing, which he said the agency understood to be “a preliminary hearing rather than a formal impeachment proceeding.”
There is still a possibility that the committee process could be short-circuited: The other co-sponsor, Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.), told reporters Thursday that he still planned to call up a floor vote next week. “It only takes one,” he said, according to Roll Call.
Huelskamp recently lost his bid for renomination and will leave Congress in January, and he has been critical of House GOP leaders for not intervening on his behalf in the Republican primary. If he forces a vote, it appears he would be doing it on his own behalf.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) told reporters that he understood the agreement to be that the hearing would take place instead of a vote before November. He praised that agreement Thursday: “The members worked the differences out with themselves. … [Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.)] worked this out with the members who were involved. That’s how I like things getting handled here.”
The Freedom Caucus members have seized on lingering frustration among conservative activists over the scrutiny that right-leaning groups received from the IRS’s Exempt Organizations Division when they applied for tax-exempt status in the early years of the Obama administration. Koskinen, a veteran turnaround specialist in the private and public sectors, was brought in to clean up after the scandal, but his relationship with the Republican Congress was poisoned after backup tapes containing emails sent by key official Lois Lerner were destroyed amid a House investigation.
“Those emails were destroyed under his watch,” said Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, which saw its IRS applications languish for more than four years before it won tax-exempt status. “His job was to restore the public trust, and it hasn’t been restored.”
Koskinen’s defenders have not only taken issue with the substance of the Freedom Caucus’s claims — pointing, for instance, to a Treasury Department inspector general’s report that found no evidence implicating Koskinen in a cover-up — but have also objected to the process they have employed. Only once before, in 1876, has the House impeached an executive-branch official below the rank of president: Secretary of War William W. Belknap, who was charged with taking kickbacks from the operators of military trading posts.
Never before, Koskinen’s lawyers argued in the Sept. 8 letter, have impeachment articles been pursued outside of a committee process where the target of the impeachment is allowed to present evidence and give testimony in his or her defense.