The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee voted Thursday to hold former Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress for refusing to talk to lawmakers about her role in the agency's pattern of targeting conservative groups.
The vote was 21-12, with all Republicans present voting in favor of contempt and all Democrats rejecting the resolution.
The contempt resolution now moves to the House floor, but no time has been set for a vote and it is possible it will not happen if Lerner changes her mind and decides to speak with lawmakers. If the House finds Lerner in contempt, the matter will be referred to the Justice Department to investigate.
Republicans, who are in the majority and outnumber Democrats on the oversight panel, argued that Lerner should be held in contempt for twice refusing to answer questions before Congress by invoking the Fifth Amendment right against self incrimination. Lerner declined to testify despite delivering a lengthy statement in her own defense before the oversight panel in May 2013 and later talking to Justice Department officials. Republicans say Lerner waived her Fifth Amendment rights by claiming no wrongdoing.
“You can’t come in and make a statement like Ms. Lerner did, and then come in and 'plead the fifth,'” Rep. John Duncan, R- Tenn., a former state judge, said. “If that was possible, every defendant in this country would do that. To allow this makes a mockery of our system, it makes a joke out of it.”
Democrats said Lerner had the right to remain silent.
The top Democrat on the panel, Elijah Cummings, D-Md., likened Thursday's contempt proceedings to the 1950s-era House Un-American Activities Committee or the investigations under former Wisconsin Sen. Joe McCarthy.
“I do not want to go back to that shameful era in which Congress tried to strip away the constitutional rights of American citizens under the bright lights of hearings that had nothing to do with responsible oversight and everything to do with the worst kind of partisan politics,” Cummings said.
The vote culminates a months-long effort by the GOP-led panel to get Lerner to talk about her role in the targeting. As head of the IRS division monitoring tax-exempt organizations, Lerner, Republicans believe, holds key information that may prove that the extra scrutiny given to some conservative groups was orchestrated by officials in Washington. Lerner has asserted that the targeting was a misguided effort by lower-level IRS officials based in Cincinnati, Ohio.
“Everything points at her, and she refused to cooperate,” Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., said.
Thursday's contempt hearing comes a day after the House Ways and Means Committee voted to ask the Justice Department to consider criminal charges against Lerner. Republicans on the panel released a timeline of emails and actions by Lerner that they say show she was politically motivated to target conservative groups and took an active role in coordinating those efforts.
Conservative groups included Crossroads GPS, an influential political action committee that raised millions to help defeat Democratic candidates. Other targeted groups were connected with the Tea Party.
The IRS prolonged the procedure for awarding the groups nonprofit status, sending lengthy questionnaires about group activities and requesting lists of those who volunteered for them. Many of the groups failed to receive tax exempt status before the 2012 elections, which Republicans believe unfairly undermined their efforts to participate in the election.
“This is one of the most fundamental abuses that I’ve seen in my lifetime, of trying to skew an election, gagging and hog-tying conservative groups in this country,” Mica said.
But Democrats argued that Lerner was just a mid-level IRS bureaucrat who would have testified before Congress if House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., had given her lawyer more time to prepare. Democrats believe Issa bungled the contempt process by speaking about it on television news programs and by failing to properly inform Lerner of the pending contempt charges. Democrats have gathered the opinion of dozens of legal experts who agree with their view.
Many Democrats on the panel said they also want to interview Lerner about her role in the targeting.
“This will be laughed out of court,” Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., said. “The chairman has so bungled this whole proceeding that it will just be a significant cost to the taxpayer and we will not be able to get to the bottom of this through this channel. That is unfortunate because I think there is a danger when a powerful department works against the interest of the people.”
Issa said the committee had a responsibility to compel Lerner to testify.
“We cannot tell the American people that we have done all we can to get the truth in this or other investigations if we offer a pass to a critical witness like Ms. Lerner,” he said. “We are here today for one fundamental reason, to get to full truth about IRS targeting. We cannot abandon this responsibility.”
The GOP majority blocked a Democratic amendment that would have required Issa to release transcripts and emails already obtained by the panel. Democrats say Issa has been selective in releasing information to the public and media that incriminate Lerner and the IRS. They said that if all of the information were to be released, it would reveal evidence that the targeting was not necessarily purposeful or politically motivated.
“Are you afraid of transparency?" Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., asked. “Is there something in those transcripts that the public doesn’t deserve to know?”
Issa said he would release all of the transcripts when the investigation is completed, but now now, because it could provide “a roadmap” about the questions investigators may ask.