WASHINGTON—Arguing that the American people deserve answers on the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups, House Republicans on Wednesday night voted to hold a former senior IRS manager in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify at two hearings about the scandal.
Six Democrats joined all voting House Republicans in the 231 to 187 vote to hold Lois Lerner in contempt. Lerner, the former director of the division within the IRS that processes tax-exempt applications, twice invoked her Fifth Amendment right to not incriminate herself at House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearings. But Republicans claim Lerner waived her Fifth Amendment right when she offered a statement declaring her innocence before refusing to answer questions.
The House also approved on Wednesday a nonbinding resolution instructing the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel to investigate the IRS.
House Speaker John Boehner said the House actions put the Obama administration on notice that congressional Republicans will not tolerate stonewalling over the IRS scandal.
“Who’s been fired over the targeting of conservative groups by the IRS?” Boehner asked before Wednesday’s vote. “No one that I’m aware of. Who’s gone to jail for violating the law? When is the administration going to tell the American people the truth?”
The contempt vote came nearly one year after Lerner first disclosed publicly that the IRS had improperly subjected the tax-exempt applications of conservative groups, including pro-life and tea party organizations, to burdensome examinations. In responding to a planted question at an American Bar Association meeting on May 10, 2013, Lerner admitted to and apologized for the targeting scheme. Republicans are trying to uncover any smoking guns that may tie the Obama White House to the IRS’s extra scrutiny as an effort to handicap conservative groups ahead of the 2012 election.
The contempt vote sends the claim to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, Ronald Machen, who was appointed to that position by President Barack Obama. Republicans and Democrats differ over whether the law requires Machen to bring the issue before a grand jury. It is unclear how the Justice Department will proceed, but it did not move forward on the last contempt of Congress resolution that passed in the House, one that was issued for Attorney General Eric Holder in 2012.
Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., called the contempt vote against Lerner unfortunate but necessary.
“She is at the center of the repeated and systemic harassment of conservative organizations and individuals by the Internal Revenue Service,” he said. “Had Ms. Lerner cooperated with our constitutional oversight responsibility on behalf of the American people, we would not have been forced to take this action.”
Lerner could face up to one year in prison and a maximum $100,000 fine. Republicans hope that the criminal justice system will compel Lerner to account for her actions. But Democrats like Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts denounced the vote as a “witch hunt” during an election year.
Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, before which Lerner refused to testify, said he is not defending her.
“I wanted to hear from her,” Cummings said on the House floor. “I have questions about why she was unaware of the inappropriate criteria for more than a year after they were created. I want to know why she did not mention the inappropriate criteria in her letters to Congress. But I cannot vote to violate an individual’s Fifth Amendment rights just because I want to hear what she has to say.”
But Jay Sekulow, the chief counsel for The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), said Lerner should be held accountable for deceiving both Congress and the American people. Lerner, Sekulow argued, tried to downplay the extent of the problem and attempted to blame the scheme on a few rogue employees out of a single IRS office.
“In the past year, we have learned that Lerner and others … employed a strategy to delay these applications—effectively silencing these conservative organizations—putting them on the sideline in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election,” Sekulow said.
The ACLJ is representing 41 organizations in 22 states in a federal lawsuit against the IRS. Of the 41 groups, according to the ACLJ, 24 organizations received tax-exempt status after lengthy delays, 11 are still pending, five withdrew applications because of frustration with the IRS process, and one had its file closed by the IRS after refusing to answer the unconstitutional requests for more information.
“What happened at the IRS is a real tragedy,” Sekulow said. “Blatant targeting of Americans because of their political views. Sidestepping the Constitution. And, violating the trust of the American people.”
While movement on the contempt charge by the Democratic-led Justice Department is doubtful, Republicans on Capitol Hill hope to keep the pressure on so the issue remains in the minds of voters heading into this fall’s midterm elections. The Republicans are hoping controversies like this IRS scandal, Obamacare’s error-plagued rollout, and the deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, will give the GOP enough of a political edge to regain control of Congress for the final two years of Obama’s presidency. Sometime this week the House will vote to approve a resolution establishing a select committee to investigate the 2012 attack on Americans in Benghazi.
Boehner on Wednesday pledged that this select committee on Benghazi “is not going to be a sideshow, it’s not going to be a circus.” He told reporters it would be a serious investigation.
“When is the administration going to tell the American people the truth? They’ve not told them the truth about Benghazi, they have not told the truth about the IRS, they’ve not told the truth about Fast and Furious,” Boehner said. “One would have to guess if they’re not willing to tell the American people the truth, it must not be very pretty.”
Going on the political offensive, the National Republican Congressional Committee, the campaign arm of House Republicans, moved quickly after Wednesday night’s Lerner vote. The NRCC sent out press releases attacking the most vulnerable House Democrats for opposing the contempt measure.
“Scott Peters refuses to condemn Lois Lerner,” read one release aimed at Rep. Peters, a Democrat from California. “Democrats vote against getting answers and holding the IRS accountable.”
Similar releases went out to 33 other congressional districts held by Democrats. Seeking some political cover, 26 Democrats voted for the measure calling on the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel to probe the IRS. But Holder has refused to act on similar requests, calling a special counsel unnecessary.
Not surprisingly, top conservatives applauded the contempt vote.
Republican Study Committee Chairman Steve Scalise said Lerner “abused her position by using the heavy hand of the IRS to target certain civic groups, and then refused to answer for her actions.”
Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., said the contempt vote “is another example of the hoops the Obama administration has forced Congress to jump through in order to get the truth.”