Conservatives force leadership’s hand in IRS impeachment

In a private meeting this month, House Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan and conservative ally Rep. Mark Meadows presented two options to Speaker Paul Ryan: Hold hearings to impeach Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Commissioner John Koskinen, or we’ll force a vote on it on the House floor.

Ryan’s response: Give me 24 hours to figure things out.

{mosads}Days later, Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) announced his committee would hold two hearings examining alleged abuses by the top IRS official, though he avoided the word “impeachment.”

The Ryan-Jordan-Meadows meeting, confirmed by several GOP lawmakers and aides, sheds some light on why Goodlatte, with little advance warning, agreed to hold IRS impeachment hearings despite reluctance from GOP leadership. Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) hosted a second IRS meeting with major players last week.

The cave by leadership is the latest example of the Freedom Caucus’s conservative hard-liners flexing their muscles.

The Wisconsin Republican made passing a budget a top priority of his first year as Speaker, but he’s failed to persuade Freedom leaders to move forward on a fiscal 2017 spending blueprint — a huge embarrassment for the former Budget Committee chairman.

Sources with knowledge of the Speaker’s IRS meeting were extremely reluctant to discuss details with The Hill, emphasizing that they have appreciated the working relationship between Ryan and the Freedom Caucus. But there is also anxiety from House conservatives that the Goodlatte hearings will be too timid and won’t lead to a formal impeachment vote in the House.

The hearings had been stalled for more than six months, despite an aggressive push by Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). In October, Chaffetz introduced four articles of impeachment against Koskinen, whom Republicans accuse of lying under oath and destroying computer records central to their probe into whether the IRS targeted Tea Party groups. Chaffetz has also devoted several hearings to the IRS investigation, including one last month.

On Wednesday, Chaffetz rolled out a resolution to censure Koskinen — something he called a “precursor to impeachment.”

But the Judiciary panel, not Chaffetz’s committee, has jurisdiction over impeachment matters.

Both former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Ryan, his successor, seemed to have little appetite for a big election-year impeachment showdown given the long odds of success and the potential that it could divide the 246-member GOP conference. The last Cabinet official to be successfully impeached was Secretary of War William Worth Belknap in 1876.

Boehner “felt there was nothing there,” said a GOP source familiar with his thinking.

Goodlatte, too, hadn’t made the IRS a legislative priority during his tenure leading Judiciary, though he hailed from a deep-red district in southern Virginia. Instead, he’s devoted time and staff resources to such issues as criminal justice reform, cybersecurity and border enforcement.

That’s why many were so surprised when Goodlatte — roughly 30 legislative days until the summer recess — put out a press release Friday about the pair of IRS hearings. Several GOP lawmakers both on and off Goodlatte’s panel said they didn’t see it coming. Even some members of Ryan’s leadership team said they were blindsided.

Goodlatte wouldn’t stop for questions from The Hill during votes on Tuesday. GOP aides familiar with the decision said IRS hearings had been postponed for months as the Judiciary Committee pored over thousands of documents from Chaffetz’s Oversight panel.

“After conversations with many members and House leadership, the House Judiciary Committee thought it prudent to hold public hearings to closely examine the misconduct by the IRS commissioner,” a GOP aide said.

For Freedom Caucus members, the impeachment of Koskinen, no matter how politically perilous, represents the House following through on promises to voters.

Last fall, more than 80 percent of the group voted in favor of impeachment, allowing the entire caucus to formally endorse that approach. And last month, on April 15, Freedom lawmakers gave a series of speeches on the House floor calling for impeachment of the tax commissioner.

“You have the right as an American citizen to speak out against your government and not be harassed for doing so, and yet the IRS did just that,” Jordan said in a fiery floor speech.

Jordan and Meadows both declined to comment on possible IRS discussions they had with Ryan and his top lieutenants.

But conservatives’ push for impeachment was discussed at recent meetings of the far-right Freedom Caucus, including the possibility of bringing a privileged motion to the floor to force an impeachment vote.

Meadows, a North Carolina Republican, would only tell The Hill, “We are just grateful the chairman is willing to have a hearing.” Koskinen has been invited to testify at the first Judiciary hearing, set for May 24. The second hearing will be held in June.

The Freedom Caucus, specifically Meadows, has some experience with privileged motions. Last summer, Meadows, one of the group’s co-founders, studied a possible privileged motion to “vacate the chair” — a move that would have immediately forced a floor vote to remove then-Speaker Boehner.

Instead, he offered a nonprivileged motion to remove Boehner, which was simply referred to a committee but created so much pressure that Boehner resigned soon after.

When it comes to the IRS, any lawmaker could make a privileged motion to call for a vote on the Chaffetz impeachment resolution. At that point, legislators could vote on the resolution or table it; the resolution could also be referred to a committee.

Jordan, who represents Ohio, has a unique perch in the IRS matter. He not only leads the Freedom Caucus, a bloc of nearly 40 conservatives with significant leverage to either block or help pass legislation, but as a member of the Oversight panel, he is also familiar with the details of Chaffetz’s IRS investigation.

And he’s one of six Oversight members who simultaneously serve on Goodlatte’s Judiciary panel, including Chaffetz and Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), chairman of the Select Committee on Benghazi.

Jordan is also part of a small group of advisers that meets with Ryan weekly, so there is some trust between the two. GOP sources described the Ryan-Jordan IRS meeting as “friendly” and stressed that they have a good working relationship. They pushed back on the idea that Jordan had issued a threat or ultimatum to Ryan.

“This wasn’t going to come up this Congress unless it was pushed by Jordan, but it wasn’t done in an antagonistic way,” one GOP source said.

Ryan spokesman Brendan Buck acknowledged the Speaker had taken part in a number of IRS-related meetings over the past few months. Since assuming the Speaker’s gavel in October, Ryan has advocated for a “bottom-up” approach, leaving top decisions to committee chairmen whenever possible, Buck said.

In a phone interview with The Hill, Chaffetz said he didn’t care what exactly precipitated the Judiciary hearings or who got credit.

“I’m just glad there’s movement,” Chaffetz said. “Impeaching a civil officer has not been done in 140 years. I liken it to an atrophied muscle that hasn’t worked in a long time — it’s a little cranky getting it going, but it’s a way for Congress to stand up for itself.”

Tags Bob Goodlatte Boehner IRS Jason Chaffetz John Boehner Paul Ryan Trey Gowdy

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