CONGRESS RETURNED from its summer break Tuesday to what may be a brief but contentious pre-election legislative spell. Among the likely arguments: whether Congress should radically change its relationship with the executive branch and hobble the government in the process.
For months, a group of hard-line conservative lawmakers has been pressing to impeach Internal Revenue Service Commissioner John Koskinen, in an effort that may soon come to a head. The context for the campaign against Mr. Koskinen is the continuing GOP obsession with the way the IRS reviewed nonprofit groups’ tax-exempt status, following reports that conservative groups were disproportionately scrutinized. The initial reports turned out not to reflect much of a scandal, which was more about bureaucratic obliviousness than purposeful anti-conservative activity.
In any case, Mr. Koskinen was not leading the agency when the non-scandal took place — so lawmakers on a scandal hunt have attacked how he handled the aftermath. They point out that some agency emails were deleted after they were supposed to be saved. No matter that an inspector general investigation found no purposeful wrongdoing. Mr. Koskinen’s tormentors fume that he should have told them about the missing emails earlier. The IRS commissioner, they say, offered untruthful testimony before Congress about the matter. Mr. Koskinen has a reasonable response: He did not immediately know the nature or the extent of the gap in the email record, and when he did, he demanded that the agency attempt to recover all it could. Though Mr. Koskinen’s pursuers imply that the IRS commissioner has lied to them, they have little evidence indicating this to be the case.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee voted to censure Mr. Koskinen in June. The evidence did not warrant even that step. Since then, House conservatives have pushed impeachment. Such a move would be unprecedented. Congress has impeached only one Cabinet member ever, in 1876. Lawmakers have never impeached an executive branch official below the Cabinet rank. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), a leading anti-Koskinen crusader, thinks this record of partisan restraint is a problem. Impeachment, he told us in June, “should be a much more common occurrence.”
Wrong. The Founders designed federal impeachment procedures to be used sparingly, erecting barriers to removing executive officers that did not exist in the English system, Michael J. Gerhardt, a University of North Carolina law professor, told the House Judiciary Committee in June. They also purposely avoided allowing impeachment in cases of mere “maladministration,” raising the bar to the much more serious “high crimes and misdemeanors” standard. “The Founders did not want high-ranking officials in the executive or judicial branches to be subject to impeachment for their mistakes in office,” Mr. Gerhardt testified.
The cumbersome and partisan Senate confirmation process has made it hard enough to fully staff the highest realms of government with competent people. Never-ending, partisan impeachment proceedings against executive officers would make it even harder to keep the essential mechanics of government working. The result would be more bureaucratic bungling, not less.