House Republicans' Latest Bad Idea: Impeaching the IRS Chief

Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the executive editor of Bloomberg News, before which he was a reporter, bureau chief and executive Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.
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If the House Republicans' Benghazi investigation craters after former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's testimony this week, the chamber's right-wing caucus has a sequel in mind: attempting the second impeachment of an executive branch appointee in 226 years.

The target is Internal Revenue Service Commissioner John Koskinen. The specifics of any supposed impeachable offenses are vague. Koskinen, 76, is a respected, successful business and government executive who, at the behest of the White House, took on the job of cleaning up the beleaguered tax agency in December 2013, after offenses had been committed.

Since 1789, the House has impeached 19 officials: two presidents, 15 judges, a senator in the 18th century. The only executive branch appointee was William Belknap, President Ulysses S. Grant's war secretary.

Now, the 40-member Freedom Caucus, which played a role in Speaker John Boehner's resignation, wants to try again. The House Oversight Committee, where proceedings would start, is stacked with right-wing Republicans.

QuickTake Speaker of the House

The accusations stem from 2013, when the IRS's tax-exempt division was found to have disproportionately targeted conservative groups for scrutiny. Although Koskinen was brought in after the damage had been done, Ohio Representative Jim Jordan and his Freedom Caucus followers say he has tried to cover up some wrongdoing. Some, rather recklessly, accuse him of lying. The tax agency is unpopular and makes an appealing political target.

Democrats say the allegations against Koskinen are unfounded: "It is despicable character assassination," said Representative Gerald Connolly, a Virginia Democrat who serves on the Oversight Committee. "They are manufacturing a phony issue for ideological reasons."

The case has problems. The specific charges seem specious: There may have been miscommunication, but there is no evidence of wrongdoing by Koskinen.

Former Representative Dave Camp of Michigan, the Republican chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee from 2011 until this year and now a senior policy adviser at PricewaterhouseCoopers, said that while, to him, Koskinen "has been a disappointment" in terms of reforming at the troubled agency, "impeaching the IRS commissioner is not a tactic that will be successful."  

The pre-Koskinen abuses by the IRS's tax-exempt division have been the subject of three inquiries: First, a nine-month investigation by the Treasury's inspector general, a Republican appointed by President George W. Bush. The second was conducted by the General Accountability Office and the third produced a bipartisan Senate Finance Committee report. All were critical of IRS mismanagement, but none found any evidence of illegal activities or political direction from on high.

A New York Times investigation of the IRS's Cincinnati tax-exempt operations described an understaffed, bureaucratic, poorly led office, not one motivated by politics. Moreover, although the IRS was wrong to focus on conservative groups, the underlying skepticism about some applications for tax-exempt status was justified.

The Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which allowed torrents of special interest money into campaigns, also encouraged groups to declare themselves principally social welfare organizations that dabble in politics. That designation made them eligible for favorable tax treatment with minimal disclosure requirements. Under pressure from Republicans, the IRS is pulling back from a push for stricter regulation of these groups.

A partisan impeachment probably would seem a foolish distraction from the real issues of jobs, health care, debt and terrorism. It could backfire in the same way as the impeachment of President Bill Clinton 17 years ago, the politically motivated government shutdowns and the fizzling Benghazi inquest is likely to.

The fight within the House Republican caucus reflects less an ideological split than the manifestation of an apocalyptic view from the right-wing minority that the political system has to be destroyed before it can be reformed. That justifies actions such as impeachment.

More than a few Republicans fear their colleagues would be making a huge mistake.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net