Politics

Ryan Stops Short of Backing Effort to Impeach IRS Chief

Speaker says GOP must win White House first

IRS Commissioner John Koskinen faces an impeachment threat from a House committee stemming from a political targeting scandal at the agency. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Despite his frequent criticism of the Internal Revenue Service, Speaker Paul D. Ryan stopped short Thursday of backing a committee effort to impeach the agency's commissioner, John Koskinen.  

Ryan's answer was effectively a no.  

"Yes, I think this is an agency that has not been led well and this is an agency that needs to be cleaned up," the Wisconsin Republican said during his weekly news conference. "As far as these other issues, look, what I think what we need to do is win an election, get better people in these agencies and reform the tax code so we’re not harassing the average taxpayer with a tax code that they can't even understand."  

However, Ryan said he is supportive of how the House Oversight and Government Reform and Ways and Means Committees have handled concerns about the IRS.  

Both panels have open investigations into allegations that the IRS targeted conservative political groups, but the Oversight Committee members are the ones pushing for Koskinen’s impeachment.  

Ryan, former chairman of Ways and Means, noted that congressional scrutiny has exposed scandals at the IRS and that lawmakers have held the agency accountable through riders passed in last year's omnibus appropriations bills.  

Oversight Committee members, including House Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, planned to deliver speeches Thursday evening on the floor calling for Koskinen’s impeachment in advance of Tax Day, the deadline for most individuals to file taxes. Tax Day is typically April 15 but the IRS extended the deadline to April 18 this year.  

Koskinen was on Capitol Hill on Thursday to defend the agency's cyber-security practices. He has come under fire from conservatives for a variety of reasons, but the heart of the impeachment effort is what many Republicans see as his failure to cooperate with the congressional investigations.  

“Every duty that he had during a congressional investigation, he breached, and for that we think he should be impeached,” Jordan said.  

Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, with support from a majority of Republicans on his panel, introduced a resolution in October to impeach Koskinen.  

“The framers [of the Constitution] gave us a safety valve to get rid of somebody who is not serving the best interest of the nation and clearly John Koskinen is not,” Chaffetz said in a brief interview Thursday. “His record is clear and he should be removed from office.”  

The resolution argues that Koskinen failed to comply with a subpoena requesting certain IRS documents and that he provided false and misleading information to Congress about missing emails sent to and from former IRS official Lois Lerner, a lead figure in the targeting scandal. The Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over impeachments, has not acted on the resolution.  

Lerner, the former head of the IRS tax-exempt organizations division, retired from the agency in September 2013. She had been on administrative leave since May 2013 after she revealed during a tax conference that the agency had inappropriately used political terms like “Tea Party” to filter tax-exemption applications for extra scrutiny.  

The IRS has said it disputes the resolution's allegations and that it has cooperated with congressional investigations.  

Chaffetz said he is working to build broad support for his resolution, which currently has 62 Republican co-sponsors.  

“It hasn’t been done in 140 years to impeach a civil officer,” Chaffetz said when asked about resistance from colleagues to support the effort. “But we think we’re on firm ground. It is in the Constitution.”  

As to Ryan’s idea of waiting for Republicans to win the White House, Chaffetz said, “That’s one path, but I want the bureaucracy to know that if they do something as reprehensible as destroying documents there is an action that Congress can take.”  

Ryan certainly doesn't think Koskinen is doing a good job. He made headlines as a Ways and Means Committee member in June 2014 when he called the commissioner a liar for withholding information from Congress about Lerner's missing emails. Ryan has continued his attacks against the IRS since he became speaker last year, but it appears he is not ready to call for impeachment.  

"I think that the IRS is not being led well," he said Thursday. "I think the IRS misled Americans. I think the IRS is not on top of their game with respect to preventing hacking from occurring in the future, cyber theft. This is a problem.  

"But I also think the IRS is implementing a horrible tax code," Ryan added. "And I think the real solution at the end of the day is comprehensive tax reform."  

Of course there is another solution that would probably make all Republicans happy: Koskinen could resign.  

“I’d be fine with that,” Jordan said.  

Contact McPherson at lindseymcpherson@rollcall.com and follow her on Twitter @lindsemcpherson. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.