Congress returns to work Tuesday, and at the top of several members’ to-do list is impeaching IRS Commissioner John Koskinen.
He would be the first sub-Cabinet executive branch officer ever impeached. And if House Republican Freedom Caucus members get their way, Koskinen won’t even be given a chance to defend himself.
It’s hard, we know, to gin up much sympathy among Americans for the chief tax collector. It’s even harder when the Internal Revenue Service has made so many missteps in recent years. The extent of Koskinen’s imperfections, though, is debatable; they almost surely fall far short of the “high crimes and misdemeanors” that impeachment requires.
At best, he is a faithful public servant who came out of retirement at age 74 out of a sense of duty and has given his all to righting a mismanaged, understaffed and perhaps at times vindictive agency that he inherited.
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It’s possible his performance has been sporadic and his commitment to transparency inconsistent. That would, unfortunately, make him a Washington regular, but not a criminal traitor.
At a minimum, he deserves an exhaustive hearing and opportunity to defend himself in front of the House Judiciary Committee before such an extraordinary – and politically motivated – action is taken.
That’s not what Freedom Caucus members like North Carolina’s Rep. Mark Meadows envision. They are willing to take Koskinen’s fate to the House floor for an up-or-down vote with no due process. That would violate tradition and establish an ominous precedent.
Koskinen (a Duke grad and former chair of Duke’s board of trustees) took over in December 2013, charged with cleaning up the mess made by Lois Lerner. Lerner was at the center of a scandal prior to Koskinen’s arrival in which the IRS mostly targeted conservative political groups in their applications for nonprofit tax-exempt status.
Congress issued a subpoena to Koskinen seeking all of Lerner’s emails. Weeks later, IRS employees in West Virginia erased 422 backup tapes that contained as many as 24,000 of Lerner’s emails.
There is no evidence that Koskinen was personally involved in the deletion. The Republican-appointed inspector general investigating Lerner’s actions said the erasure was an accident stemming from a miscommunication.
The rest of the resolution to impeach Koskinen is flimsy. It accuses him of making “false and misleading statements” to Congress. Koskinen says he testified to what he thought was true at the time, even if some of it later turned out not to be accurate.
Koskinen deserves credit for making fundamental changes to prevent a repeat of the Lerner episode. He implemented 15 bipartisan reforms recommended by the Senate Finance Committee, and the inspector general said Koskinen took “significant actions” to address the agency’s problems.
Lerner’s actions were unacceptable, and the IRS’s failure to retain vital documents in the case is disturbing. So Congress is right to continue to pursue questions. Impeachment, though, is almost certainly using a bazooka to kill a roach. At the least, Koskinen, who has offered a lifetime of public service and ethical behavior, deserves a chance to fully tell his side of the story.