The Oversight and Government Reform Committee voted along party lines Thursday to hold ex-IRS official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress.
The vote, coming as Congress heads out of town for a two-week recess, is the latest chapter in a year-long probe that has sparked some of the fiercest partisan clashes among panel members in recent memory — from cutting off the ranking member’s microphone as he sought to speak to comparing the chairman to Sen. Joe McCarthy, R-Wis.
The animosity is likely to spread, as Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and other GOP leaders have signaled their commitment to bringing the contempt measure to the chamber floor in the weeks ahead. It would be the second such contempt vote since the summer of 2012, when, spurred by another Oversight and Government Reform investigation, Republican House members targeted Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.
“If Lois Lerner continues to refuse to testify, then the House will hold her in contempt,” Boehner said in a statement Wednesday following the Ways and Means Committee vote to refer Lerner to the Justice Department for a formal criminal investigation.
The 21-12 contempt vote taken by the Oversight Committee Thursday followed nearly four hours of debate and came after Lerner refused to testify on her role in the IRS targeting of conservative political groups seeking tax-exempt status with the agency.
Members of the majority party said the investigation into the IRS scandal and Lerner’s involvement is about seeking answers for the American people.
"We are here today for one fundamental reason: To get to the full truth about IRS targeting," Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said in his opening remarks on Thursday. "We cannot abandon our responsibility."
Minority members countered that the GOP exercise is tantamount to "political theater" and represents a "dark day" for the committee.
"I do not direct my comments to my fellow committee members. Instead, my statement is directed to the generations of Americans yet unborn who will learn about this vote in their history books," ranking member Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., said. "I speak to those who are reading the transcript of today's proceedings 50 or 100 years from now and are trying to understand why Congress — in the year 2014 — tried to strip away an American citizen's rights under the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution."
Issa and Cummings have gone toe-to-toe on a number of occasions in the three-and-a-half years they have been counterparts on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and friction has only increased in the 11 months since the IRS scandal came to light. Cummings has called Issa out for leaking interview transcripts to the press before seeking input from the committee; Issa has accused Cummings of withholding correspondence between minority staff and Lerner's attorneys.
During the course of Thursday's business meeting, however, the two lawmakers left it mostly to the rank-and-file members to fire political shots.
"If members want to hold someone in contempt, maybe they should look to the person holding the gavel," said Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev.
"Please don’t demagogue the chairman," Rep. John L. Mica, R-Fla., said later on. "[Democrats] may have a job to do on the other side, but we have a job to do for the American people."