House conservatives pulled the trigger Tuesday on the process to begin impeachment of IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, rejecting appeals from fellow Republicans and from the commissioner himself to set the matter aside and prompting President Obama to call the effort “crazy.”
Rep. John Fleming, Louisiana Republican, made the move, kicking off a process that will put fellow GOP lawmakers on the spot. Under House rules, lawmakers must address the matter within two legislative days — though leaders could make a motion to refer the resolution to a committee, where it would likely die, or to table it, effectively killing it.
“If you vote for anything that would stop short of impeachment, or if you vote against impeachment, then you’re voting to keep Koskinen in his job,” Mr. Fleming told reporters Tuesday after initiating the debate.
He and fellow conservatives say Mr. Koskinen lied to Congress when he claimed he’d produced all of former IRS senior executive Lois G. Lerner’s available emails, even though his agency’s own inspector general said backup tapes held thousands of messages. But some of the tapes were destroyed before the inspector general was able to get to them, perhaps expunging important emails.
Mr. Koskinen has also come under fire for his leadership at the troubled tax agency, including seeing tens of thousands of taxpayers’ information stolen in a cyberattack, and continued efforts to delay tea party groups trying to obtain nonprofit status.
Late Tuesday, Mr. Obama blasted the impeachment effort, saying the IRS “inadvertently” deleted the Lerner emails, and saying that kicking Mr. Koskinen out of office for an oversight such as that was unprecedented.
“This is a big deal,” Mr. Obama told Democrats at a fundraising dinner in Manhattan. “This hasn’t happened before. It’s not that he’s venal or has stolen money or abused his office.”
Speaking earlier in the day, Rep. Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican who’s also pushing the effort, said the impeachment vote gives Congress a chance to strike against the kind of special treatment they say has aided Hillary Clinton’s political ascent.
“There’s one standard for all of us, and there’s a different one for the politically connected. There’s one standard for ‘we the people,’ and if your name is Lerner, Koskinen or Clinton, it’s an entirely different standard, and that’s what bugs the American people,” Mr. Jordan said.
Impeachment is a House vote proposing articles or removal from office. It takes a majority vote to impeach.
If the House approves articles, the Senate then holds a trial, and it requires a two-thirds vote to convict an official, who is then removed from office. Even if the House were to impeach Mr. Koskinen, Democrats could easily block his removal based on their numbers in the Senate.
Many Democrats say that while intrusive questions were wrong, the agency was reacting to a confused legal situation in the wake of a 2010 Supreme Court ruling. No evidence has turned up suggesting the White House ordered the targeting — though evidence does lead back to the D.C. headquarters of the IRS.
Mr. Koskinen last week was on Capitol Hill pleading with Republicans to join with Democrats and keep him on the job.
Part of his pitch to the GOP was that he wasn’t at the helm of the IRS when the tea party targeting occurred, Politico reported.
Mr. Koskinen was appointed by President Obama to clean up the agency in the wake of the targeting scandal, which saw the tax agency refuse to process hundreds of conservative groups’ applications, instead subjecting them to intrusive questions about their beliefs, activities and associations.
Three of the groups are still awaiting approval more than three years after the IRS admitted its bad behavior.
A federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., blasted the IRS earlier this summer for holding those groups up, and for refusing to swear off any targeting in the future — undercutting Mr. Koskinen’s claims that the agency had put the scandal behind it.
In the wake of that ruling, Mr. Koskinen wrote a letter to congressional leaders insisting he has now permanently banned the use of lookout lists to single out groups for special scrutiny.
But the lawyers in a class-action lawsuit against the IRS say the IRS still insists that its use of targeting criteria is acceptable.
In a response Monday, the IRS said it does feel it “was inappropriate for the IRS to use targeting criteria.” But the agency has refused to say its behavior was illegal.