Skip to content

The GOP’s War on the IRS

But IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, the personification of 'the taxman,' is not going to be impeached

IRS Commissioner John Koskinen is a target of conservative Republicans. ( Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
IRS Commissioner John Koskinen is a target of conservative Republicans. ( Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Ah, late April in Washington! The cherry blossoms give way to the azaleas; the streets are filled with “fly-in” advocates from apple growers to zoo keepers; and Congress takes well-timed symbolic whacks at the Internal Revenue Service.  

Especially when Republican are in charge, the days closest to Tax Day have been given over to bills and resolutions with almost no chance of enactment — but debated nonetheless to highlight just how lustily antagonistic the GOP feels toward the IRS. It falls to the House to take the lead, because the Constitution says it must originate legislation affecting revenue, and rank-and-file members hardly seem to mind.  

Last week was no different, with six different measures poking at the tax agency pushed through the House during a three-day feast of overheated and customarily partisan rhetoric. This came as legislation addressing the financial crisis in Puerto Rico , the Zika virus and the opioid epidemic
languished. Still, some Republicans confessed a lingering sense of disappointment — because they’ve been quietly rebuffed in their aspirations to intensify their crusade against the IRS this election year, and at the same time swipe at President Barack Obama one more high-profile time.  

The personification of “the taxman,” IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, is not going to be impeached.  

A cadre of conservative lawmakers argue passionately that he should face the House’s ultimate sanction, which amounts to an indictment for abuse of office on which the Senate would then be compelled to conduct a trial.  

They allege the commissioner obstructed the House’s investigation into allegations that the IRS gave heightened scrutiny to conservative political organizations and tea party groups that applied for tax-exempt designations before the last presidential election. And they imply that Obama has been in on the conspiracy.  

The congressional bill of particulars: Koskinen shirked a subpoena and as a result, thousands of emails to and from Lois Lerner, the IRS official at the center of the case, were destroyed; he wasn’t truthful in congressional testimony about the IRS’s handling of those emails; and he failed to notify Congress that evidence was missing.  

Nineteen members, mostly from the House Freedom Caucus, filed their resolution of impeachment six months ago, right after the Justice Department closed its investigation of the controversy and said no one would be charged with a crime.  

But the Republicans in charge of the Judiciary Committee have never publicly considered the matter, and the reason has only recently become clear: Speaker Paul D. Ryan does not want them to .  

“This is an agency that has not been led well and this is an agency that needs to be cleaned up,” Ryan said of the IRS when reporters asked his view of the impeachment effort. “As far as these other issues, look: What I think what we need to do is win an election, get better people in these agencies and reform the tax code so we’re not harassing the average taxpayer with a tax code that they can’t even understand.”  

The comment injected a candid note of realpolitik into the situation. Ryan first won his Wisconsin seat in 1998, despite his party’s surprising losses of House seats nationwide amid its aggressive pursuit of President Bill Clinton’s impeachment. Fear of similar electoral punishment prompted the Democrats, in the past decade, to tamp down the rhetoric when liberal members pressed for the impeachment of President George W. Bush.  

That hands-off approach has been maintained by top Republicans since they took back the House in 2011. A drive to impeach Obama’s first attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., was quashed even more quietly than the campaign against Koskinen is being shelved now.  

And Ryan is furthering that approach: The former Ways and Means Committee chairman has calculated that trying to make such a heated political point during the campaign could become counterproductive, working against the GOP congressional and presidential victories he’d need to attain his long-sought aspirations for a tax overhaul.  

It’s also true it’s been 140 years since the last impeachment of an appointed executive branch official — William W. Belknap, who stepped down as President Ulysses S. Grant’s secretary of war the same day the House charged him with taking bribes from traders at an Indian post. The Senate acquitted him on grounds that the matter had become moot, reaffirming the precedent that resignation is the surest way for administration officials to get Congress off their backs.  

There’s no real reason for Koskinen to take that route now, with nine months left in Obama’s time in office. Although if the next president is a Republican, he may decide it’s preferable to leave the IRS two years ahead of a term that runs through 2018.  

In the meantime, he’ll continue to preside over an agency that remains one of the favorite bureaucratic pinatas of the GOP.  

Most of the bills the House passed last week are tough for Democrats or the White House to oppose: a prohibition against the IRS rehiring anyone fired for misconduct, a hiring freeze until the agency certifies no employees have seriously delinquent tax debts, a curb on employee bonuses until a comprehensive plan for boosting customer service is in place, a mandate that paper tax-filing instruction booklets remain — and, for good measure, an admonition against targeting citizens for exercising their First Amendment rights.  

One measure, however, is a sufficient enough threat that the White House issued a formal veto warning. It would require the IRS to get congressional approval before using funds collected through user fees. Republicans deride the agency officials for using that revenue as a “slush fund” for implementing the 2010 health care law. Democrats say the legislation would take away another 4 percent from a tax-collection budget that Republicans have cut by a cumulative $900 million this decade.  

Koskinen will probably spend much of this year arguing against that rather than defending his own reputation.  

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.

Recent Stories

Total eclipse of the Hart (and Russell buildings) — Congressional Hits and Misses

House plans to send Mayorkas impeachment articles to Senate on Tuesday

Harris sticks with Agriculture spending, Amodei likely to head DHS panel

Editor’s Note: What passes for normal in Congress

House approves surveillance authority reauthorization bill

White House rattles its saber with warnings to Iran, China about attacking US allies