A House panel debated whether Congress should remove the head of the Internal Revenue Service Wednesday during what may be the final hearing related to the tax agency's targeting of conservative groups under President Obama.
Republicans framed the impeachment resolution as an opportunity to hold the IRS accountable for its alleged cover-up of the politically biased conduct that landed the agency under investigation in 2013.
Rep. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., argued federal agencies could continue to flout congressional oversight if IRS Commissioner John Koskinen was spared punishment for allegedly allowing the destruction of documents under subpoena and subsequently lying about the status of those records to Congress.
"This is a case of checking the executive branch," DeSantis said.
Members of the House Judiciary Committee questioned a panel of legal experts about whether the allegations against Koskinen rose to the level of impeachment, a move that has not successfully ousted a cabinet official since 1876.
Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., called the IRS hearing "petty" and argued the House should be focused instead on fallout from the June 12 terror attack in Orlando that claimed 49 lives.
"There's simply not enough days left in the congressional calendar" to examine the volume of evidence compiled for Koskinen's impeachment, Nadler said, noting he did not think the impeachment effort was a "good idea."
Koskinen has been under fire for more than a year as his agency struggled to comply with congressional requests for documents related to the IRS targeting scheme.
Under Koskinen's watch, IRS officials destroyed 422 backup tapes that contained the emails of Lois Lerner, the former head of the IRS' tax-exempt unit and the public face of the agency's scandal.
The IRS commissioner told members of the House Oversight Committee in March 2014 that his agency was working to locate and hand over Lerner's emails in response to a congressional subpoena.
However, a subsequent review indicated Koskinen knew at the time of his testimony that Lerner's records had already been destroyed.
Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, described the IRS' refusal to hand over documents "perfectly bizarre" given that a "small organization," conservative nonprofit Judicial Watch, had more success extracting records through the Freedom of Information Act than did investigators who used the power of subpoena.
"Congress has been largely dormant" when it comes to levying "deterrents" against federal agencies that misbehave, Turley said during the hearing.
Andrew McCarthy, a former U.S. attorney, suggested a failure to hold Koskinen accountable would amount to an acceptance of the obstruction his agency displayed during the Oversight Committee's investigation.
"You either have to act, or you are basically greenlighting that conduct," McCarthy said.
But Michael Gerhardt, a constitutional law professor at the University of North Carolina, argued the grounds for removing Koskinen would effectively lower the standard for impeachment in the future, a shift he described as "fraught with problems."
The hearing Wednesday marked the second time Koskinen's impeachment has come before the Judiciary Committee. During the first, Koskinen declined an invitation to testify, citing his busy schedule
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said after the hearing that the Judiciary Committee's work on the alleged IRS cover-up has been "eye-opening."
"These hearings cannot be the end of the matter," Jordan said. "The Judiciary Committee must hold a vote on impeachment."