The House voted Wednesday to hold former IRS official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress and to instruct the Justice Department to probe her for criminal charges. The actions mark the culmination of two simultaneous committee investigations into allegations that Lerner knowingly presided over the improper targeting of conservative outside groups seeking tax-exempt status with the agency, including stalling the application process and giving special scrutiny to organizations that appeared to be affiliated with the tea party movement.
The other resolution (H Res 565), referred by the Ways and Means Committee and supported Wednesday by a 250-168 vote, would call upon Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to appoint a special prosecutor to evaluate whether Lerner should face criminal charges on specific counts of misconduct related to the scandal. Neither resolution is likely to yield results: The Justice Department is actually under no obligation to appoint a special counsel, and the criminal contempt statute says the U.S. attorney has a "duty" to convene a grand jury in an event of a contempt citation, but it doesn't appear to be mandatory.
Peter Carr, a spokesman for the Justice Department, declined to comment Wednesday on whether Holder would pursue a prosecution of Lerner.
Texas Republican Rep. Blake Farenthold readily acknowledged that he didn't expect the House's contempt of Lerner to make a tangible difference. After all, the Department of Justice has yet to move on the 2012 House vote to hold Holder in contempt of Congress for his refusal to comply with a subpoena to testify on "Operation Fast and Furious."
"But we've got to do our job," Farenthold said.
The votes were seen as a victory for Republicans, who are determined to press the issue and hold the Obama administration accountable in the IRS scandal ahead of the midterm elections.
"There are few government abuses more serious than using the IRS to punish American citizens for their political beliefs," said Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., during floor debate on Wednesday. "The very idea of the IRS being used to intimidate and silence critics of a certain political philosophy is egregious. It is so egregious that it has practically been a cliché of government corruption in works of fiction for decades since President Nixon's administration."
Oversight and Government Reform ranking member Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., fired back, saying the House actions was reminiscent of late-Wisconsin Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy's infamous "witch hunt" of communists in the 1950s.
"Not since McCarthy has this been tried, that is the stripping away of an American citizen's constitutional right not to incriminate themselves and then holding them in contempt criminally," Cummings said. "McCarthy. We are better than that. We are so much better."
Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and others have countered that Lerner essentially forfeited her Fifth Amendment rights when she gave public statements about her innocence, then refused to speak any more on the matter before the congressional panel.
"Ms. Lerner is holding this Congress in contempt!" said Rep. John L. Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations.
No Republican broke the party line on either vote, but some Democrats defected. Six of them voted with Republicans to hold Lerner in contempt of Congress and 26 Democrats agreed that Lerner should be investigated by a special DOJ prosecutor.
Democrats launched a formal whip operation against the resolutions.
Katy O'Donnell contributed to this report.
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