House Tries to Get Their Pound of Flesh from the IRS
Policy + Politics

House Tries to Get Their Pound of Flesh from the IRS

REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

House Republicans renewed their reproach of the Internal Revenue Service this week, proposing to slash $236 million from next year’s operating budget and conducting impeachment proceedings against IRS Commissioner John Koskinen in absentia.

For a while it looked as if relations between the embattled IRS and GOP lawmakers had calmed after several tumultuous years of House investigations and retaliatory budget slashing stemming from revelations in 2013 that the agency had targeted Tea Party groups seeking tax exempt status for harsh scrutiny. Related: Budget Cuts and Mismanagement Boost IRS Tax Cheats

Congress provided the IRS with a modest budget hike last year, and Koskinen announced earlier this month that he had “found” enough money in his budget to hire 700 additional tax enforcement officers.

But Republican leaders were back on Tuesday as they sought to revive a controversy that sorely embarrassed the Obama administration and led to a major shakeup at the IRS. The controversy peaked in May 2014, when Lois Lerner, a former IRS official who was at the center of the targeting scandal, was declared in contempt of Congress after she invoked her Fifth Amendment right in refusing to testify before the House Oversight Committee.

The reason for the retaliation—last October, the Department of Justice gave Lois Lerner, the IRS executive responsible for targeting conservative groups, a free pass on charges of abuse of power and improper influence.

Republicans were furious. They were told that Lerner’s hard drive had crashed and was destroyed (and along with it, thousands of emails that may have pointed to Lerner or higher officials). And they were also told that six other computers belonging to people who routinely exchanged emails with Lerner had also crashed. Finally, Koskinen said he would provide all documents that had been “backed up” on IRS servers—a routine compliance procedure mandated by HIPAA, HITECH and Sarbanes-Oxley—but none were forthcoming.

That’s when Republicans launched an election-year salvo against the IRS, charging that Koskinen had engaged in a cover up to prevent a thorough investigation of gross mismanagement and a blatant subversion of tax law. Related: Found! 6,400 New Lois Lerner Emails on the IRS Targeting Scandal

However, the highly unusual impeachment proceedings against a cabinet member reeked of political posturing – and it reportedly drew comments of disapproval from some prominent Republicans, including Senate Finance Committee Chair Orrin Hatch (UT).

Moreover, it’s not clear whether House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) will allow the full House to vote on impeachment in an election year when Ryan is attempting to demonstrate that his party is providing constructive leadership, as The New York Times noted. Politico reported today that Rep. Ron DeSantis, the Republican leading the IRS impeachment proceedings, has been raising campaign funds off the inquiry. DeSantis is seeking the Senate seat of retiring Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. He has repeatedly touted his role in the impeachment proceedings during campaign appearances and on his campaign website.

“He must be impeached,” DeSantis says of Koskinen in one link on his website. The blatant political exploitation of the impeachment effort has offended some Republicans as well as Democrats. Related: The IRS Just ‘Found’ Enough Money to Hire 700 Additional Workers

“The criminality of this administration and their hubris of defying fiduciary law is broadly something that drives voters and, by definition, drives their participation,” former House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chair Darrell Issa (R-CA), who led the initial probe of the IRS, told Politico. “We weren’t about looking for fundraising. We never fundraised on our investigations.”

However, Ron Bonjean, a Washington political consultant and former House GOP communications official, said in an interview, “There really isn’t a downside for going after the IRS. Most Americans are angry about paying taxes. And it puts Democrats in a difficult position of trying to defend the agency unless you come from a very safe district.”

During a House Judiciary Committee impeachment hearing yesterday, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), the current Oversight and Government Reform committee chair, testified that Koskinen had misled lawmakers by falsely promising to turn over thousands of Lerner’s emails that had been subpoenaed.

Instead, Koskinen waited months before disclosing that his agency had destroyed many of the records, and then he appeared to be dragging his feet in searching for backups. Those backup documents eventually were found by the IRS’s Inspector General’s office and turned over to the House. Related: Criminals Accessed IRS Taxpayer Info 720,000 Times in 2015

“Providing false testimony before Congress comes with a consequence, at least it should,” Chaffetz declared during the Judiciary Committee hearing – one that Koskinen skipped and that many Democratic members boycotted. “It’s a crime.”

Koskinen insisted that his schedule was too busy for him to appear at the impeachment hearing. Instead, he sent a detailed statement dismissing the allegations against him as “unwarranted” and certainly not an impeachable offense. The GOP committee leaders refused to allow the statement to be entered into the record.

The few Democrats who did attend the session told reporters that Republicans were wasting taxpayers’ dollars on political grandstanding as they seek to dredge up old controversies in an election year.

Meanwhile, the House Appropriations Committee proposed a $10.9 billion operating budget for the IRS in fiscal 2017. That would be a $236 million reduction from this year’s level and $1.3 billion less than the Obama administration requested. Lois Lerner Is Cleared, Sparking Conservative Fury

The spending language specifically prohibits political targeting by the IRS and would also impede the agency’s duties in operating the Affordable Care Act.

Committee Democrats strongly objected to the cuts, saying lower funding has left the agency unable to perform many of its basic duties, such as tracking down tax cheats and responding to taxpayers’ questions.

“The House Republicans’ newly proposed IRS budget shows that they still don’t grasp the consequences of their action,” Rep. Sander Levin (D-MI) said in a statement. “Cuts made by the Republicans to the IRS budget since 2010 have resulted in terrible customer service, outdated technology, and the lowest level of audits in a decade.”