The Conservative Crusade Against the IRS Commissioner

Republicans have their sights set on impeaching or censuring IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, even though he was brought on after the scandal surrounding the targeting of conservative groups.

Yuri Gripas / Reuters

Feeling wrung out by the grossness of the presidential race, the hurricane buffeting the East Coast, and the nationwide epidemic of scary clowns? Buck up, camper, and at least be thankful that you are not IRS Commissioner John Koskinen.

Heading the most loathed agency in the federal government takes a psychic toll on a good day. But the past 17 months or so have been a pig pile of lousy days for Koskinen, as conservatives have led a multi-pronged crusade to publicly humiliate him, drive him from office, and strip him of his pension. On September 21, shortly before Congress fled town for the remainder of election, Koskinen had to go before the House Judiciary Committee for a formal impeachment hearing.

Then, last week, the dark-money group 45Committee announced that it was dropping more than $1 million on ads lobbying for the commissioner’s ouster. “Call the House of Representatives and tell them to vote to impeach Commissioner Koskinen now,” urges the spot, which presents impeachment as the last, best hope for beating back “the arrogance of the Obama administration.”

What did Koskinen do to deserve all this? It’s complicated. The roots of conservatives’ outrage lie in the 2013 revelation that the IRS had improperly scrutinized Tea Party groups (among others) seeking tax-exempt status. An FBI probe found no evidence of “enemy hunting.” But conservatives have been super miffed at the agency ever since.

“The government went after people for their political beliefs,” fumes Rep. Jim Jordan, head of the House Freedom Caucus, which has made Koskinen’s impeachment a pet cause. ‘This is not just any old agency,” Jordan reminded me. “This is the IRS. Most people get a letter from the IRS, they sit down, wipe their brow, and their resting heart rate suddenly gets higher. Now we know that they systematically targeted people for their political persuasion.”

Those paying attention will note that Koskinen was not running the IRS during the period in question. (That was Bush holdover Douglas Shulman, followed by acting commissioner Steven Miller.) Nor was he in charge of doling out tax-exempt designations. That was Lois Lerner, who resigned three years ago but whose name still sets Republicans’ teeth to grinding.

Koskinen was, in fact, nowhere near the IRS until Obama called him in to restore confidence in the embattled agency. Congress confirmed Koskinen in December 2013—and it took all of six months for the new commissioner’s rescue mission to implode. In June 2014, he informed lawmakers that many of Lois Lerner’s subpoenaed emails had been lost in a hard-drive crash, and the backup tapes inadvertently erased.

The Treasury Department’s Inspector General ruled the loss of the tapes an unintentional screw up. Conservatives have decided nonetheless that Koskinen must go. The commissioner has been hauled before multiple committees multiple times in both chambers of Congress. House Republicans have accused him of arrogance, dishonesty, obstruction, foot-dragging, and being generally unhelpful in their investigation.

Last October, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, head of the Government Oversight and Reform Committee, introduced a resolution to begin impeachment proceedings. The resolution has 73 co-sponsors, and the Freedom Caucus has committed itself en masse to the cause. “Every single member said, ‘We should pursue this,’” Jordan told me.

At this point, Jordan doesn’t much care whether the destruction of the backup tapes was part of a cover up or simply the result of incompetence. “No one is saying this was all intentional,” Jordan assured me. “But where was the gravity of the situation?” He also acknowledges that Koskinen is not at fault for the original targeting offense. Impeachment advocates, however, really feel that someone’s head needs to roll. “It was political speech they targeted,” marveled Jordan. “And for no one to be held accountable?”

Even so, impeaching a public official is like going nuclear: a measure reserved for the very worst transgressions. Only once has Congress taken this route with an administration official other than a president. (In 1876, War Secretary William Belknap was impeached for taking kickbacks.) Which is why, despite today’s partisan rancor, even many Republicans have been loath to blaze this trail.

For starters, few in the GOP want an ugly impeachment brawl breaking out in the midst of an election year. Senate Republicans, in fact, reportedly had plans for promptly derailing impeachment if it somehow made it out of the House.

More broadly, there is concern that impeaching Koskinen would set a bad precedent, lowering the bar and opening the floodgates to future prosecutions. Back in May, Republican Orin Hatch, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, declared that any effort to oust Koskinen would be D.O.A. in the upper chamber. “We can have our disagreements with him,” said Hatch, “but that doesn’t mean there’s an impeachable offense.”

There has been a lack of enthusiasm among some House Republicans as well. Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte has held hearings on the issue but has shown little inclination to call a vote. Neither has leadership embraced the cause. “The definition of impeachment, people have a different opinion," House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy told reporters last month. "That is the discussion that goes around in our conference.”

Freedom Caucusers are growing ever more frustrated. In late September, Reps. Tim Huelskamp and John Fleming moved to circumvent the Judiciary chairman and force a floor vote through a special procedural motion. At the last minute, a deal was cut to delay the vote and instead have Goodlatte bring in Koskinen for a formal hearing.

With such ambivalence about impeachment even among Republicans, why doesn’t the Freedom Caucus try for a less fraught punishment for Koskinen, such as censure? (The groundwork is there: Chaffetz’s Oversight Committee has already voted along party lines for censure.) Because the Koskinen impeachment crusade isn’t really about John Koskinen. Rather, the commissioner has emerged as the perfect symbol of so many things that conservatives love to hate.

On the most basic level, Koskinen heads the IRS, a perennial big-government punching bag for Republicans even absent scandal. Now, as the face of a powerful agency accused of thumbing its nose at congressional investigators, Koskinen exemplifies for conservatives, as the 45Committee ad puts it, “the arrogance of the Obama administration.”

As such, taking him down wouldn’t just be holding the IRS accountable; it would be a step toward reining in what conservatives see as an executive branch run amok. (Reclaiming congressional authority has become a big issue for the GOP of late.) As Jordan noted, “There is hope it will reassert the constitutional role of the legislative branch relative to how it relates to the executive branch.”

Even more broadly, said Jordan, this is about striking a blow for fairness. “Americans are so frustrated about this,” he said. “They have rightly concluded that there are two standards—a double standard. One standard is for you and me, and there is a different one for Lois Lerner or John Koskinen or Hillary Clinton”—those who Jordan deems “part of the politically connected class.” (Ironically, the 5th-term congressman does not count himself among this class.)

With so much on the line, there’s no way conservatives can just give up on booting Koskinen. “For all those reasons,” said Jordan, “we have kept pushing.” Besides, the commissioner’s current term doesn’t end until next December, which gives Jordan & Co. another whole year to keep “pushing.” As they see it, whatever the precise sins of the man, the symbol must be brought down.