By Bernie Becker - 04/09/14 11:48 AM EDT
House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa’s efforts to hold former IRS official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress are reminiscent of the McCarthy era, House Democrats charged Tuesday.
"Sixty years ago, Joe McCarthy tried-and failed-to hold an American citizen in contempt after she professed her innocence and asserted her rights under the Fifth Amendment,” Cummings said in a statement.
“I reject Chairman Issa's attempts to re-create our Committee in Joe McCarthy's image, and I object to his effort to drag us back to that shameful era in which Congress tried to strip away the Constitutional rights of American citizens under the bright lights of hearings that had nothing to do with responsible oversight and everything to do with the most dishonorable kind of partisan politics."
Cummings’s charges mark the latest escalation in the Capitol Hill debate over the IRS’s treatment of Tea Party groups, which has heated up significantly this campaign season.
Issa (R-Calif.) is seeking to hold Lerner in contempt of Congress this week, after Republicans on the Oversight panel ruled that she waived her Fifth Amendment rights by defending herself in an opening statement last year.
The California Republican has the backing of GOP leaders in that efforts, and has said that Lerner’s testimony is key to his investigation into the improper scrutiny the IRS gave to Tea Party groups seeking tax-exempt status. Lerner was the first IRS official to acknowledge that scrutiny.
CRS found 11 cases in the 1950’s and 1960’s when the Senate committee led by McCarthy, who was eventually disgraced for his efforts at rooting out communists from the U.S. government, and other panels tried to hold witnesses in contempt after they took the Fifth.
Defendants in the cases that dealt just with testimony, CRS found, were either found not guilty or eventually had their conviction overturned.
The House Ways and Means Committee is likely to refer Lerner to the Justice Department for potential prosecution on Wednesday.