IRS commish impeachment is only about making headlines
© Cameron Lancaster

Soon, the House of Representatives will vote on a motion impeaching IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, a dedicated public servant. The motion will fail. It's a perfect example of a Congress that has chosen dysfunction over function, time-wasting over action and governance, especially where the IRS is concerned.

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Since 2013, when the Treasury Inspector General found that the IRS had selected some applicants for nonprofit status for increased scrutiny based on the words in their names, some members of the House of Representatives have been on a years-long odyssey of investigations and accusations. Almost $20 million in taxpayer funds have already been spent on these investigations, none of which has found anything nefarious.

Having found nothing, these same members of Congress have cut the IRS budget by 17 percent since 2010. Unsatisfied with that punishment alone, they have turned their sights on Koskinen, a longtime public servant who was not even at the IRS when the original problems occurred.

Impeaching the commissioner may make headlines, but in reality, it will only make it harder for the IRS to do what the members of Congress claim they want: to clarify the subjective rules governing what organizations should be granted nonprofit status, the vagueness of which were a root cause of the "scandal."

To qualify as a nonprofit, groups have to commit to doing no partisan political activity — in the case of 501(c)(3)s, like charities — or only a limited amount — in the case of 501(c)(4) social welfare groups. But the definition of what activities count as "political" is hopelessly vague and dependent on individual judgement. One of the key recommendations of the original report that identified the problem and the subsequent investigations has been to clarify the definition of political activity to make it easy for groups to follow the rules and for the IRS to enforce them.

Congress has chosen to stop this vital reform. In December 2015, a provision in a spending bill prohibited the IRS and the Treasury Department from working on new rules that would address this issue. And while Congress could have sought to address the issue through new laws of its own, it has failed to do so.

Instead, Congress has now chosen to spend more time and taxpayer dollars seeking to remove from office a man who has tried to solve problems at the agency and move the political activity regulation forward. They are also politicizing one of the most grave powers the Constitution grants to legislators — the power to impeach senior government officials.

At every juncture where members could have chosen to make the government function better (the job they were sent to Washington to do), they chose dysfunction instead. Rather than fixing the problem or even just allowing the IRS to continue the process to fix its own rules, they have chosen to spend years and millions of dollars on fruitless investigations, and then to persecute those who have done nothing wrong other than run an agency that does a difficult and thankless job — collecting the taxes America needs to provide vital government services.

It's time for Congress to let this rule-making go forward, so the IRS can actually solve the problems members say concern them.

Gilbert is the director of Public Citizen's Congress Watch Division. Peterson-Cassin manages Public Citizen's Bright Lines Project.


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