House Republicans are now one step closer to keeping the GOP firestorm over the Internal Revenue Service burning through the midterm elections.
In a 21-12 vote, the House Oversight Committee Thursday approved a resolution to hold former IRS official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress. No Democrat on the committee voted for the measure.
Lerner is the central figure in the controversy after agency officials were pinned for improperly targeting tea party and conservative groups. Republicans seized the drama to stoke party rallying cries in the year since the revelations came to light.
Lerner appeared before House committees for two separate grillings. Last May, the former head of the agency’s tax-exempt division provided a personal statement before the House Oversight Committee and refused to answer questions, pleading the Fifth. She invoked her constitutional rights against self-incrimination once again in March.
Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the Oversight Committee, said the resolution to hold Lerner in contempt of Congress was not an action he took lightly. The California Republican argues that Lerner effectively waived her Fifth Amendment right by addressing the House panel in her opening statement.
The committee’s ranking Democrat, Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, compared Issa’s crusade against Lerner to tactics practiced by late-Sen. Joe McCarthy, infamous for his witch hunt against alleged communists during the height of the Cold War.
“Today, this committee is trying to do something that even Joe McCarthy wouldn’t even do in the 1950s,” Cummings said, “something virtually unprecedented.”
Lerner’s attorney, William Taylor, condemned the committee’s move as a political stunt and said she did nothing wrong or illegal. "The notion that the majority is engaged in objective oversight or fact-finding is pure fiction," Taylor said. "The vote is the latest event in the majority's never-ending effort to keep the IRS story alive through this fall's mid-term elections."
Democrats on the committee condemned the resolution as a partisan political ploy to drum up the GOP base ahead of the midterm elections. They defended Lerner’s constitutional rights and said the contempt case against the ex-IRS official didn’t hold water.
“Trying to rip up the Constitution and run roughshod over the Bill of Rights is not a path to truth,” New York Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney said. “It is merely political theater.”
The resolution now moves on to the House. Speaker John Boehner warned Wednesday that if Lerner refuses to testify, then the House would hold her in contempt. Republicans deployed a similar tactic against Attorney General Eric Holder in 2012 when House members voted to hold him in contempt of Congress for not handing over documents pertaining to the botched "Fast and Furious" gun-running operation. A large group of Democrats stormed off the House floor in protest.
A separate House committee, Ways and Means, voted Wednesday to refer Lerner to the Department of Justice for possible criminal prosecution. The committee accuses the ex-IRS official of improperly wielding her power, misleading investigators and risking disclosure of confidential tax information. The DOJ is already investigation the IRS’ actions.
Lerner resigned from the agency last year after serving at the IRS for over a decade.