As divided House Republicans debate whether they should vote to impeach IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, members are also wrestling over when it’s appropriate to skirt traditional legislative procedures and take matters into their own hands.
The impeachment effort is just the latest example of a group of rank-and-file members trying to push for a vote on an issue that they see as a priority but that lacks broad support among the House Republican Conference.
Leadership’s default position for resolving such differences has been to defer to committee leaders on what action to take, if any. Following so-called regular order has appeased members on most issues, but it’s backfired amid committee inaction on the resolution to impeach Koskinen.
“My recommendation for the Judiciary Committee is they ought to get on this and look at it and tell the House where they are,” said Texas Rep. Bill Flores, the chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee. “I think that’s one of the frustrations that rank-and-file membership in the House feel — that nothing is happening there and that the American people deserve an answer.”
The Judiciary Committee held two hearings on Koskinen’s alleged misconduct this spring — more than half a year after Oversight Committee members introduced a resolution calling for Koskinen’s impeachment – but never began formal proceedings.
Since the Judiciary Committee has done nothing since the hearings in May and June, members of the staunchly conservative House Freedom Caucus have decided to bypass the committee and force a vote on the floor.
"What are we waiting for?" said Louisiana Rep. John Fleming, one of the caucus members leading the effort. "If they’re not going to act, it’s time somebody acts."
The Freedom Caucus's plan, crafted in July, is to use a privileged resolution to bring the impeachment resolution up for a vote. Fleming said no decision has been made about when to notice the privileged resolution, a procedural motion that would require the House to address the matter within two legislative days, but that “it will be very soon.”
House GOP leadership has scheduled a special conference meeting to discuss the impeachment resolution next week. Freedom Caucus members indicated they’ll likely wait until after that meeting before they force a vote.
Still, Speaker Paul D. Ryan acknowledged Wednesday that the privileged resolution will come to the floor and members will have to decide how they want to vote.
“You have members on both sides on this, members on the Judiciary Committee on both sides of this,” the Wisconsin Republican said. “And this is something where the conference is going to work its will.”
Koskinen was in the Capitol Wednesday to make his case for why he shouldn’t be impeached. After a scheduled meeting with the moderate Tuesday Group, Rep. Darrell Issa of California suggested Koskinen also speak with the Republican Study Committee, which was meeting nearby.
The committee decided to accommodate the impromptu meeting with Koskinen. The commissioner made a few “valid points” about due process that gave members something to think about, Flores said, before noting that he still generally favors impeachment.
“I’ve been in too many hearings where basically he was arrogant and condescending and not candid with Congress,” Flores said.
Koskinen said he has no plans to resign before his term ends in November 2017, unless the next president should decide to replace him sooner. Addressing the impeachment effort, he said Wednesday, “I don’t think those facts rise to the level of bribery, treason, high crimes and misdemeanors.”
Many Republicans have not yet made up their minds about whether the House should impeach Koskinen and are frustrated that they’re being forced to vote on it before the Judiciary Committee has weighed the evidence and presented their findings.
“You would have to demonstrate some level of due process prior to proceeding on an impeachment, not just throwing something on the House floor,” Tuesday Group Chairman Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania said after his group’s meeting with Koskinen.
Dent predicted that if the privileged resolution comes up for a floor vote, Democrats would likely launch a successful move to table it with the help of a sufficient number of Republicans. While that would avoid an up-or-down vote on impeachment, Fleming argued that a vote to table the motion would effectively be a vote against impeachment.
Rep. Kenny Marchant, a member of the tax writing Ways and Means Committee that has primary oversight authority over the IRS, said his preference would be to send the matter back to the Judiciary Committee. “If impeachment is the goal, I don’t think a couple of hearings is sufficient,” the Texas Republican added.
But as Ryan indicated, even the Judiciary Committee members are divided, which could explain why the panel has not acted.
North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, a Freedom Caucus member involved in the impeachment effort, said that if the Judiciary Committee would have gone further than holding the two hearings, a privileged resolution may not have been necessary. The Freedom Caucus has been transparent about its intentions to force a vote, he added.
“It has not been done in a vacuum,” Meadows said. “It certainly has been done with all the openness and transparency in trying to make sure the issue has been addressed by the full conference.”
The IRS controversy dates back to 2013, when Lois Lerner, the head of the agency’s tax exempt division acknowledged that the IRS had been inappropriately selecting conservative groups’ exemption applications for extra scrutiny.
The Obama administration tapped Koskinen to come in and clean up the agency. It is his handling of the cleanup effort — particularly the agency’s cooperation with congressional committees investigating the targeting scandal — that has landed him in trouble.
Oversight Committee Republicans argue that Koskinen lied to Congress about having turned over all relevant documents for their investigation and that evidence was destroyed under his watch. They outlined these arguments during a May hearing before the Judiciary Committee explaining the case for impeachment.
In June, the Judiciary Committee heard from outside experts about Koskinen’s alleged misconduct and what actions Congress could take against him. The committee has not taken further action or said whether it plans to pursue the matter further. A spokeswoman for the committee declined to comment for this story.
Koskinen declined to testify before the Judiciary Committee, citing inadequate time to prepare for the hearing after returning from a business trip. However, he’s continued to defend his actions, saying that he did not deliberately mislead Congress.
“Every time I testified, I testified in good faith, to the best of my ability, honestly,” Koskinen told reporters Wednesday after meeting with the Tuesday Group. “And I regret, in some cases, that subsequently determined facts made some of those statements not fully correct, but it wasn’t because of any intention on my part.”