By Bernie Becker - 03/26/14 11:31 AM EDT
House Republicans on Wednesday broached the idea of holding the IRS commissioner in contempt, accusing the agency of stonewalling their investigation into its improper scrutiny of Tea Party groups.
Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) called Commissioner John Koskinen's response “dismal by my standard” as Republicans pressed the IRS chief for more than four years worth of emails from Lois Lerner, the former agency official at the center of the controversy.
To Republicans, that was an indication that the commissioner is more concerned with managing the political fallout of the agency’s treatment of groups seeking 501(c)(4) status than helping their committee complete its inquiry.
“What part of 'all' don’t you and the IRS understand?” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) asked Koskinen about Lerner’s emails. “We don’t care what you think is irrelevant.”
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who could succeed Issa as Oversight Committee chairman in the next Congress, told The Hill after the hearing that Republicans wouldn’t rush into a contempt charge.
But he made clear that, with the GOP also unhappy with how the IRS has responded to subpoenas, Republicans would go to great lengths to get information they think they need.
“Nobody wants to go there. We’ll be very deliberate in our process,” Chaffez said. “But subpoenas are not optional.”
GOP lawmakers have signaled that they’re interested in holding Lerner, who has outraged Republicans on the panel twice by asserting her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, in contempt of Congress.
But Republicans have yet to move forward with those plans after an explosive Oversight hearing featuring Lerner earlier this month ended with Issa muting the microphone of Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the panel’s top Democrat.
Issa’s office released a memo from the House counsel on Wednesday that said that his panel could proceed with contempt charges against Lerner. Cummings and other Democrats assert that Issa did not lay the needed groundwork to hold Lerner in contempt.
Wednesday’s hearing wasn’t as volatile as the last Lerner appearance, but the floating of contempt for Koskinen by Issa and other Republicans underscored that the investigation into the IRS’s treatment of potential tax-exempt groups remains a priority on the GOP side.
Koskinen, testifying for the first time before Oversight as IRS chief, brushed aside the mentions of contempt and insisted that other congressional committees had found the Lerner email trove to be sufficient.
Asked by Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) when Congress should hold him and the IRS in contempt, Koskinen retorted: “I think the timeline is when you think you can actually sustain that in court.”
“I think no court would argue that we have not been responsive to the committee as quickly as we can,” Koskinen said to reporters after the hearing, later adding: “I think it’s unfair to say that we have been uncooperative or that we’ve been slow-rolling them or that we’re hiding documents hoping that they don’t get them.”
“If we were going to hide a document, we would’ve hidden some of the ones we already gave them,” Koskinen said.
Koskinen said he couldn’t say how long it would take to give the committee all the Lerner emails, which run from January 2009 to August 2013 and would have to be scrubbed of sensitive taxpayer information.
Issa has also requested all the emails from that same period for Holly Paz, William Wilkins and Jonathan Davis, other government officials who they say are essential to their investigation.
Republicans are also angry that the IRS has not fully complied with broader subpoenas for information, but Koskinen said that request would add up to millions of pages and could take years to fulfill.
“You may want to have this investigation go on forever,” Koskinen told Issa at one point. “We have provided you all the emails relevant.”
Republicans scoffed at the idea that their request was overwhelming, all while calling Koskinen “the president’s man” and comparing him to Lerner, who first acknowledged and apologized for the IRS’s scrutiny of Tea Party groups in May 2013.
“The same people who pressured Lois Lerner to fix the problem are the same people who picked John Koskinen to finish the job,” Jordan said.
Chaffetz said at the hearing that Koskinen “has no intention of complying with these duly issued subpoenas.”
“Both sides of the aisle need to stand up for the integrity of the House of Representatives,” Chaffetz added. “A duly issued subpoena — you comply with it. It’s not optional.”
Democrats have long said that the months of investigation have uncovered no evidence of White House involvement in the targeting, and they blame the IRS’s treatment of conservative groups on bureaucratic foul-ups.
Democrats on Wednesday said Republicans were the ones playing politics, with Rep. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) terming it a “political witch hunt.”
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) added that the GOP intention seemed to be to “get certain groups all riled up.”
“In listening to statements from the other side of the aisle, one might think that the IRS has just stonewalled the Congress and had been completely uncooperative,” Connolly said.
— This story was last updated at 5:33 p.m.