The House of Representatives voted on Wednesday evening to hold former IRS official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress, for twice invoking the Fifth Amendment during testimony to the House Oversight Committee.
Although neither the Congressional nor the inspector general's probes into the IRS's targeting of some political groups found evidence that the agency was politically motivated or acting as part of a coordinated campaign against conservatives, House Republicans believe that Lerner is withholding evidence that could prove them right.
The contempt vote, which passed 231-187, will result in a referral to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, and eventually to a grand jury, as the Washington Post explains. The U.S. Attorney and the Justice Department will then decide how to proceed. Although House Democrats and Lerner's legal team disagree, Darrell Issa (Chairman of the Oversight Committee) has argued that Lerner gave up her Fifth Amendment right to not testify against herself, because she gave an opening statement before his committee. Last month, his committee voted to hold her in contempt, and Issa has long threatened to bring a full House vote to hold her in contempt if she continued to refuse to testify, which brings us to today.
Before the vote, House Democrats and Republicans participated in a heated debate over the resolution. During that debate, Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern compared Issa's actions to that of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Although many conservatives are bristling at the comparison, it does have a specific historical precedent: According to the Huffington Post, McCarthy was the last member of Congress to try and hold an American citizen in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify. He attempted it nine times.
At issue for Republicans is whether an IRS department's scrutiny of groups with certain political keywords in their names is, as Oversight Committee chair Issa has claimed, systemically aimed at conservative groups "because of their political beliefs," or if the IRS was in fact scrutinizing a wide range of groups, including several groups adhering to traditionally liberal causes. The latter is what much of the available documentation of the IRS's actions suggest, but Republicans believe there's more out there to uncover to support their theory.
Lerner broke the news of the IRS's inappropriate scrutiny of some political groups — specifically, Tea Party-affiliated ones — almost a year ago by unexpectedly apologizing for those inappropriate actions at the end of a speech she gave at a conference. Understandably, the House Oversight Committee opened up an investigation into the IRS following her admission. But when things didn't go as the Republicans on the committee had hoped — no smoking gun emerged connecting the IRS's actions to a coordinated Obama administration campaign specifically targeting conservatives — the committee focused more and more on Lerner and her failure to talk.