WASHINGTON – Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, wants to do something that hasn’t happened since 1876: Vote to impeach an appointed official of the executive branch.
Despite the long odds against it happening, Labrador is among a group of House of Representatives conservatives trying to oust John Koskinen, the commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service.
The House Freedom Caucus, a Republican group that Labrador helped launch last year, wants Koskinen removed for allegedly lying to Congress.
As Koskinen maintains his innocence, the plan has pitted Labrador and other impeachment backers against their own leader, GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
With presidential and congressional elections less than two months away, top Republicans have shown no enthusiasm for putting Congress through a partisan, time-consuming impeachment process for a little-known bureaucrat. Only once in U.S. history has the House impeached a Cabinet-level official, the secretary of war, in 1876.
But on Tuesday, Labrador’s group flexed its political muscle, filing a privileged motion – a rarely used parliamentary maneuver – that could force the House to act within two days.
“At the end of the day, members of Congress have a choice: They’re either with the IRS or they’re going to be for the American people,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, who sponsored the motion along with fellow Republican Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana.
Fleming told reporters that the Freedom Caucus is expecting a vote, or perhaps a series of votes, on Thursday morning.
Labrador predicted that House leaders will try to table the issue or send it back to the Judiciary Committee.
“Either way, what they’re doing is punting,” he said.
The caucus has pressed its case for months, with House leaders resisting demands for full-scale impeachment hearings.
At a meeting of the House Judiciary Committee in May, Labrador said the Koskinen case had an “eerie similarity to Watergate,” with the IRS persecuting political enemies.
Labrador told his colleagues that the Watergate scandal, which forced President Richard Nixon to resign in 1974, “has come to encompass an array of clandestine and often illegal activities undertaken by the Nixon administration” and then concealed from the public during a cover-up.
“As I review the evidence and reports, the similarities between this and Watergate are staggering,” Labrador told the Judiciary Committee.
Members of the Freedom Caucus say that Koskinen, whom President Barack Obama chose for the commissioner’s job in 2013, failed to comply with a subpoena and to preserve key records related to the IRS’ alleged targeting of tea party groups.
They’re particularly irked that as many as 24,000 emails were destroyed in 2014 after the IRS was told to preserve them for an investigation by Congress. And they say Koskinen then lied about the incident.
Impeachment opponents, including Michael Gerhardt, a constitutional law professor at the University of North Carolina, said the Watergate comparison didn’t hold up and that Labrador and other members of the Freedom Caucus were “swimming upstream.”
Gerhardt is among a group of law professors who wrote to Ryan last week, saying “there is no good reason” to fast-track an impeachment vote.
“It’s an unprecedented rush to judgment,” Gerhardt said in an interview. “There haven’t been full hearings. … Watergate was a serious affair, no doubt about it, but it was also the culmination of congressional committees that were looking at this very closely – a lot of fact-finding, and that’s been absent here.”
At a meeting with reporters on Capitol Hill, Labrador said hearings could start immediately but that Freedom Caucus members had requested them and gotten nowhere.
“Some of us think that he should be impeached, but we would like to hold hearings. … It’s not because we haven’t asked for the hearings. It’s because the leadership and the chairman of the Judiciary Committee refuses to hold a hearing,” Labrador said.
With the Senate unlikely to back impeachment even if the House does, Democratic opponents said the Freedom Caucus should focus on more important issues.
“Instead of addressing serious issues facing Americans, like funding for Zika and the opioid crisis, House Republicans are wasting time grandstanding ahead of an election,” said Washington Democratic Rep. Suzan DelBene, a member of the Judiciary Committee. “When the vast majority of the House and Senate – Republicans and Democrats alike – can agree that the evidence to support impeaching Commissioner Koskinen is not there, I think it is time to move on from these games and do some real work.”
On Tuesday, at their monthly “Conversations with Conservatives,” Labrador quoted George Will, the Washington Post’s conservative columnist who last week called for Koskinen’s removal. Will, giving credit to a law school professor who first used the phrase, said Congress would become “agents of their own obsolescence” if they did not vote to impeach the IRS commissioner.
“That’s what we have become as a Congress, is agents of our own obsolescence – and it’s because of the leadership of the Republican Party,” Labrador said.
President Barack Obama, speaking Tuesday night at a fundraiser for House Democrats in New York City, called the push for impeachment “crazy.”
He cited the effort as an example of overzealous partisanship and part of why Americans are turned off politics. “No wonder people end up being discouraged and dispirited,” Obama said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.