Republicans on the House Oversight Committee outnumbered the Democrats in passing a resolution Friday morning determining that IRS executive Lois Lerner waived her Fifth Amendment right to withhold testimony from the committee. The vote was a wonderful encapsulation of the state of the IRS scandal: revisiting well-worn ground while both parties scream at each other. Perhaps at least it let them blow off a little steam.
The resolution relates to a previous appearance by Lerner before the committee. At the time Lerner first appeared on May 22, hearings on the IRS targeting were still something of a novelty. It was less than two weeks after Lerner unexpectedly apologized at the tail end of a speech at a conference, expressing regret for the behavior of her department when it singled out Tea Party groups for additional scrutiny as it considered their applications for tax-exempt status. That May 22 hearing was only the third one involving representatives of the IRS on the topic (of at least a dozen so far), and it was the first time those representatives included Lerner.
So it was understandable for the committee members to worry that her refusal to testify at that point might impede the committee's investigation. Her appearance was short: Lerner appeared, read a brief statement, verified that a document from the Inspector General's investigation was related to her, and then didn't answer any more questions under her Constitutional protection against self-incrimination. A legal expert told The Atlantic Wire that the idea that Lerner had waived her Fifth Amendment right was "bordering on frivolous," but the idea that maybe her oblique comments on the issue could have invalidated her invocation and, therefore, be an undue impediment to progress in the case — well, that was at least feasible.
Taking up the issue now, though, seems mostly punitive. Lerner has emerged as a silent representation of the House Republicans' inability to find a metaphorical gun, smoking or not, in its ceaseless IRS investigating. Over the 37 days since that first hearing, there have been hours and hours of employee interviews, wrangling over the release of those interview transcripts, newly discovered targeting of other agencies, and one committee hearing for every two hundred press releases (or so it seems). It's possible that Lerner might, if forced to testify under oath, reveal that she got a call from Obama himself asking her to isolate Tea Party groups — fulfilling the Republicans' deepest wishes — but it's far more possible that she won't offer much new on top of that stack of information. That, in fact, all she'd do is open herself up to new critiques. The IRS scandal has ballooned outward since May 22 but still, somehow, we find it in the same place — with the same villain.
For what it's worth, today's hearing was at least interesting. At right is an exchange between Chairman Darrell Issa of California and the non-voting representative of the District of Columbia, Eleanor Holmes Norton. In it, she asks Issa if perhaps offering immunity from prosecution might not be a better way to elicit answers from Lerner; after a brief back-and-forth, Issa abruptly tells her that her time has expired and passes the mic to a Republican from South Carolina.
CNN reports that this was not even the most contentious exchange.
In another sharp exchange, Issa argued with Democratic Rep. John Tierney of Massachusetts over a GOP memo that included a request that it not be distributed to all of the committee's Democrats to reduce the risk of it becoming public.
Tierney asked Issa which members he didn't want to see the memo, but Issa avoided the question and cut him off, saying, "The gentleman's time has expired."
"Well, the gentleman's excuse is lame," Tierney shot back.
In his opening statement, Issa argued that the vote would "resolve the issue" of whether or not Lerner waived her Fifth Amendment rights. Breaking down on strict partisan lines, it's very unlikely that it did. Even had it been unanimous, the resolution was simply a expression of belief by the committee, one which will almost certainly result in legal wrangling between the committee, its staffers, and Lerner's attorneys, with no predictable outcome.
Perhaps the resolution was meant as a stick, an effort to get Lerner to return willingly to testify under mutually agreed-upon conditions. Or perhaps it was just a manifestation of Issa's frustration at having made little progress in tying the IRS' mistake to his political opponents after more than a month of trying. Issa explained the delay between Lerner's assertion and this vote as having been the result of staff attorney research and his own due consideration. Perhaps it was. Or perhaps it was the inevitable action of a stymied detective, heading back to pick up an old thread, having repeatedly encountered dead ends as he tries to figure out if a crime was committed. Perhaps it was — after far too long — the House Republicans' chance to act as a jury.
Photo: Issa gestures. (AP)