IRS Commissioner John Koskinen was not at the agency during the tax-exempt status scandal, but watching House Republicans question him Monday, you would be forgiven for thinking he was the man behind it all.
Angry about missing emails from former IRS official Lois Lerner, a panel of Republicans badgered, pressed, and interrupted Koskinen in a furious effort to learn how Lerner’s hard drive became unrecoverable. The result was a prime-time congressional sideshow.
The comparisons were dramatic: The IRS targeting of Tea Party groups was compared to the Teapot Dome scandal and Watergate—and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) compared the missing emails to a missing murder weapon.
“Any third-rate, B-actor crime drama follows the same script: The bad guy always...denies it, he spins, he blames someone else, he tells the police they got the wrong guy, and of course he always says...‘I don’t know what happened to the murder weapon,’” Jordan said. “This would be laughable if it wasn’t so serious.”
Watching a third-rate crime drama might have been a more worthwhile use of everyone’s time.
“At my age, I began to stop and think about my own mortality, and think about my reputation,” mused Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), clearly emotional about the Republican flogging of the IRS chief. “I want to thank you for being who you are. I want to thank you for giving a damn and caring about our country.”
So drama there was, orchestrated by Republicans bent on attacking Koskinen and Democrats determined to defend and praise him. The nighttime panel was heavy on heated exchanges but light on new evidence to support Republican insinuations that Lerner’s emails were deleted deliberately and the IRS covered up the act.
In May 2013, the IRS apologized for inappropriately targeting Tea Party groups for greater scrutiny during their applications for tax-exempt status, a development that was denounced by members of both parties and triggered the ongoing congressional investigations into the IRS.
Republicans have been in a frenzy since realizing that the IRS was missing two years of Lerner emails. Koskinen is just the latest target for GOP venting over the emails and what the agency insists was an unsolvable IT problem.
“I have believed what happened in your agency with Lois Lerner is a crime,” said Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH). “I believe that there are others involved. I believe the emails that are missing are the ones that would probably give us an ability to establish that, and I believe that someone undertook criminal acts in its destruction…As the commissioner of the agency, you should call the FBI.”
“That’s an interesting sentiment,” Koskinen shot back. “There are no facts behind them.”
“I have believed what happened in your agency with Lois Lerner is a crime…As the commissioner of the agency, you should call the FBI.”
When House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa asked Koskinen why he previously pledged to provide all of Lerner’s emails to the committee, the commissioner responded, “I never said we would provide you with emails we didn’t have.”
“My time has expired, and I have lost my patience with you,” Issa said, interrupting Koskinen.
Democrats rallied to defend Koskinen, who was sworn in as IRS commissioner in December 2013. They thanked him profusely for his public service, apologized for Republican hectoring, and complained about decorum.
“This is about theater,” said Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-VA). “Fair play, presumption of innocence, civility…are out the window. Because there’s an agenda that presupposes some guilt, that is based in part on supposition, on paranoia, on conspiracy theory—all of which fires up the base of the other party and plays on right-wing media outlets, at the expense…of the truth.”
One of Koskinen’s lines of defense, however, will yield him little sympathy despite the verbal beating he received from House Republicans. The IRS had its IT budget cut by hundreds of millions over the past few years, he said, and employees typically go five to seven years between upgrades in computer equipment.
Regardless of the merits of his argument, a Republican-controlled House focused on belt-tightening and budget cuts is unlikely to see to it that the IRS gets more money.