Congress has never, in the entire history of the American republic, impeached a sub-cabinet official. The last time an appointed executive branch official of any rank was impeached was 140 years ago, when War Secretary William W. Belknap was impeached due to a corruption scandal.
Nevertheless, an influential right-wing faction within the House Republican Caucus hopes to break this streak on Tuesday. Rep. John Fleming (R-LA), a member of the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus, announced on Monday after a meeting of the Freedom Caucus that he will call up a resolution seeking to force a vote on whether Internal Revenue Service Commissioner John Koskinen will be impeached.
Fleming’s resolution builds on the work of Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), chair of the House Oversight Committee, who has advocated for Koskinen’s impeachment for at least a year.
The cries for Koskinen’s impeachment arise from a largely discredited scandal that itself arose from genuine mismanagement within the IRS. In 2013, the IRS admitted that it used a ham-handed method to screen groups that sought tax exempt status under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code.
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC, which permitted unlimited corporate spending on elections, 501(c)(4) organizations became a vehicle for donors who wished to fund political ads without disclosing their efforts to influence an election. The tax code permits corporations to become tax exempt under section 501(c)(4) if they are “operated exclusively to promote social welfare.” This standard required the IRS to draw difficult lines between groups that engaged in some political activity to advance a broader social welfare philosophy, and those that existed primarily to promote certain candidates. To help draw these lines, the IRS flagged groups whose names included certain keywords, such as “Tea Party,” “Occupy,” or “Progressive,” for additional scrutiny.
This practice of singling out groups because of certain words in their names has been widely criticized, and few, if any, defenders have emerged of this inept method of screening groups. Not long after the story broke, however Republican lawmakers and conservative media began accusing the Obama administration of singling out conservative groups for inferior treatment.
While most of the nation — and most of the media — moved on from this story around the same time it became clear that IRS did not single out conservative groups for selective treatment, the alleged scandal lives on in conservative media.
These accusations are baseless. Weeks after the story broke, documents revealed that IRS screeners “were not only using the term ‘tea party’ to scrutinize applications, but also the keywords ‘Israel,’ ‘Occupy,’ and ‘Progressive.’” So the IRS was searching for organizations engaged in political activity of any kind, not just for conservative groups.
Commissioner Koskinen is an odd target for conservative ire over this now-defanged scandal, in no small part because he did not take over the IRS until December of 2013, months after the story broke and the objectionable practices ceased. Nevertheless, Republican House members attribute new sins to Koskinen. The IRS deleted emails subpoenaed by congressional committees — Justice and Treasury Department investigations later found that these deletions were accidental. Koskinen also incorrectly testified that “every email has been preserved” — he later said that he believed this testimony to be true at the time.
The Constitution, however, limits impeachment for “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors,” and it is hard to see how Koskinen’s actions qualify. The allegations that IRS targeted conservative groups are not grounded in reality, and, in any event, Koskinen wasn’t around when the disputed practices were used. At worst, Koskinen appears to have presided over an agency which made an honest mistake, and he says that he testified without being aware of that mistake.
Yet, while most of the nation — and most of the media — moved on from this story around the same time it became clear that IRS did not single out conservative groups for selective treatment, the alleged scandal lives on in conservative media. George Will published a column this weekend titled “Impeach the IRS Commissioner.” The Washington Times published a similar column, headlined “Impeach IRS Commissioner John Koskinen.” Fleming, along with two other members of the House Freedom Caucus, published “Congress Must Impeach The IRS Commissioner” at the Alt-Right site Breitbart.
A vote to impeach Koskinen, in other words, may not make sense if you examine the facts of the case, but it makes perfect sense if you occupy the entirely different factual universe promoted by Breitbart and similar sites.