TaxProf Blog

Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Thursday, March 29, 2018

The IRS Scandal, Day 1788: Lois Lerner’s Last Laugh

Wall Street Journal:  Lois Lerner’s Last Laugh, by William McGurn:

Just after Labor Day 2016, when the U.S. presidential race was entering full swing, columnist George F. Will urged Congress to undertake a seemingly futile gesture: He wanted the House to impeach John Koskinen, commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service.

Mr. Koskinen had taken over as head of the IRS after it had been exposed for singling out for mistreatment conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status. He lied to Congress when he said he had produced all of Lois Lerner’s emails, allowed documents under subpoena to be destroyed, and generally behaved in a way that helped ensure there would be no hard consequences for the abuses. Though Mr. Koskinen had only a few months left on the job, Mr. Will argued that impeaching him might help Congress restore its much diminished standing as a coequal branch of government.

Not quite two years later, Congress continues to pay the price for letting Ms. Lerner and Mr. Koskinen ride freely into the sunset. Though the IRS and other federal agencies—including the State and Justice Departments, as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation—are now headed by Trump rather than Obama appointees, they continue to spurn congressional oversight demands with near impunity. ...

Congress has its own ways of showing its displeasure, including cutting the budgets of recalcitrant agencies. Given budget rules, this would require the cooperation of some Democrats, who are unlikely to go along. Nevertheless, the power of the purse remains a tool Congress can use to make the executive branch pay a price for its actions.

Above all, there is impeachment. The constitutional power to remove officials from office for “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors” is a writ far broader than anything a special counsel enjoys.

Then again, it’s not easy to impeach a federal official, and it shouldn’t be. As Mr. Will pointed out in his column calling for Mr. Koskinen’s impeachment, “no appointed official of the executive branch has been impeached in 140 years.” Mr. Koskinen was not impeached, and he and Ms. Lerner rode off into the sunset without having to answer for their actions and deceits.

Ask yourself this: Is it likely our federal agencies would be so haughty about Congress and its subpoenas if Mr. Koskinen had been impeached?

So instead of whingy calls for another special counsel, a Congress that behaved as a branch of government coequal to the presidency would use its own powers to force oversight on resisting federal officials. Even if this might ultimately include impeaching FBI Director Christopher Wray.

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