MOST OF the country has moved on from the Internal Revenue Service targeting controversy, which turned out to be not much of a scandal. Although initial reports seemed highly suspicious, it’s been clear for some time that administrative incompetence was the likely culprit, not the Obama administration vindictively singling out conservative groups for IRS scrutiny. But Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and the other Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee are still outraged. Having turned what could have been a wholly reasonable investigation of IRS carelessness into a partisan scandal hunt, the most concrete result from their inquiries may end up being a gratuitous attack on a longtime public servant.
The committee voted on party lines Wednesday to censure IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, the man President Obama tapped to lead the agency after reports that IRS employees had disproportionately scrutinized conservative nonprofits. Nonprofits that may engage in political activity deserve IRS attention, because the government should not be subsidizing political groups through the tax code. The problem was the thoughtless way IRS employees went about determining which groups to examine. Mr. Koskinen, an old bureaucratic hand, was not at the IRS when this happened. He was just supposed to clean things up afterward.
As their inquiry failed to turn up evidence of malign political motives, House Republican investigators turned their sights on Mr. Koskinen personally, claiming that he badly — perhaps purposely — bungled his assignment. IRS employees destroyed a trove of emails the committee wanted to see — after the agency was supposed to be saving them. The IRS’s inspector general found that the erasure was an honest, if frustrating, mistake. Still, Mr. Koskinen’s congressional inquisitors charge, he did not confess to Congress when he should have. Some statements he made to Congress turned out to be untrue. The IRS director has a reasonable response to that, too: He did not immediately know the nature or extent of the gap in emails, and once he did, he ordered his staff to attempt to recover what they could.
The GOP Congress has already harassed and weakened the IRS through counterproductive budget cuts. Now Republican lawmakers appear to be doing their best to deter anyone of competence from ever agreeing to lead the agency. The result of a congressional investigation into IRS dysfunction would end up being more IRS dysfunction.
That doesn’t seem to worry Mr. Chaffetz. He has been pushing not just for censure but also for impeachment, which, he told us, “should be a much more common occurrence.” In fact, there is a good reason Congress has not impeached an executive appointee since 1876: It would invite governmental chaos. Federal agencies could not operate with the threat of politically motivated dismissal constantly hanging over those who run them. It is hard enough keeping the top rungs of the bureaucracy staffed by smart people, many of whom could earn more in the private sector.
Luckily, impeachment seems to be going nowhere. Which is where this censure resolution should end up, too.
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