House Republicans moved Tuesday to cut hundreds of millions of dollars from the IRS budget, even as they took the first steps toward impeaching IRS Commissioner John Koskinen.
The two-pronged attack shows continuing displeasure with the tax agency more than three years after top officials acknowledged that they improperly targeted tea party groups for intrusive scrutiny.
Mr. Koskinen, who was brought in to help repair the embattled agency after the targeting scandal, has instead run into trouble himself, having bungled his handling of the congressional investigation and overseen a dramatic drop in IRS customer relations that left most taxpayers’ phone calls unanswered during the 2015 tax season.
Republicans said that showed a level of incompetence and obstruction that deserves punishment.
“When Congress asks you a question, you’re expected to give a truthful answer. And when Congress gives you a subpoena, compliance isn’t optional,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Congress’ top investigator, said in testimony to the Judiciary Committee.
Mr. Chaffetz, Utah Republican and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has proposed either censure or impeachment for Mr. Koskinen, and Tuesday’s hearing was the first step on the path toward one of those outcomes.
Democrats said the proceedings were a sham and that not even all Republicans agreed with pursuing impeachment. They said investigations by the IRS internal auditor, by the Justice Department and by several other congressional committees have found no evidence that the tea party targeting was an orchestrated political move to silence conservatives.
“We have so many more critical things to do in Congress, and we should be focusing on those urgent issues rather than this pointless exercise, which will go nowhere in the Senate,” said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the oversight committee.
Mr. Koskinen declined to appear in his own defense Tuesday, citing a crowded schedule and the need to prepare for a hearing Wednesday before another committee on Capitol Hill.
He did send a written statement defending himself, but Republicans objected to making it part of the official record. If the commissioner wanted to tell his side of the story, they said, he should be willing to come to the witness table and face cross-examination in the form of questions from committee members.
President Obama tapped Mr. Koskinen to be his troubleshooter at the IRS in an attempt to right the reeling agency. He came in with a good reputation among both Democrats and Republicans, but has quickly lost Republican support as he struggles to answer for the chaotic agency.
His biggest stumble was when Congress was trying to look at former IRS senior executive Lois G. Lerner’s emails as part of the targeting probe. Mr. Koskinen belatedly informed the committee that a computer hard-drive crash lost thousands of messages that were subject to a subpoena.
But the internal IRS auditor was able to quickly recover many of the messages from backup tapes. Worse yet, Mr. Koskinen’s employees never even sought to find those backup tapes, allowing hundreds of them — and potentially thousands of Lerner emails — to be lost forever.
Removing Mr. Koskinen from office is a high bar that Congress is unlikely to clear this year. It requires a majority vote in the House on articles of impeachment and then a two-thirds vote in the Senate to convict and remove him. Even some Republican senators have cast doubt on the effort.
One more promising option for angry Republicans may be to sap the IRS of funding.
The House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday proposed a $10.9 billion budget for the agency in 2017, which would be a cut of $236 million from 2016 levels. It’s $1.3 billion less than Mr. Obama requested.
In addition to the funding cut, House Republicans included language to prohibit political targeting.
Democrats objected to the cuts, saying lower funding has left the agency unable to perform many of its basic duties such as answering taxpayers’ questions.
Republicans, though, said they boosted customer service funding by cutting nonessential activities in order to send a message.