You may or may not have noticed last week, amidst the growing turmoil in Ukraine and Crimea, that Darrell Issa is still – still – pursuing the IRS investigation of politically-oriented 501(c)4 groups, both left and right.
Summary: A 501(c)4 group is a non-profit social group that engages primarily in activities and advocacy of a social nature. They are permitted to do some political work but if they do too much, they can have their tax-exempt status lifted and get hit with penalties and interest on the taxes they should have paid.
Nevermind there’s jail time involved as well. About three years ago, it came out that, indeed, the IRS was doing their jobs and investigating groups that filed for this status. Turns out, the only group that was actually caught and punished was a liberal group, but be that as it may, right wing Teabaggers cried “oppression,” “foul,” and any number of the usual phrases white folks whine when caught in a lie.
Flash forward to last week: Issa held a hearing…excuse me, another hearing…involving Lois Lerner, a former IRS official who was nominally involved in the investigation (since the investigation itself was routine, it’s hard to say anyone was at the center of it. Indeed, the official in charge of the IRS who had knowledge of the work, Douglas Shulman, is a Bush appointee, and it passed his muster.)
Lerner was questioned by only one member of the Issa’s committee: Issa himself.
Lerner, sensing a kangaroo court, refused to testify to Issa, citing her Fifth Amendment rights.
After that, Issa cut off the mics and shut the hearing down, and threatened Lerner with a contempt of Congress citation.
Democratic committee staff sought the advice of Morton Rosenberg, a former constitutional law and process specialist with the Congressional Research Service and that of Stan Brand who served as general counsel for the House of Representatives in the early 1980s (Democrats were in the majority during those years), who concluded that Issa eliminated his option to move ahead with contempt when he concluded the hearing so abruptly.
Rosenberg writes in a letter to Cummings that Supreme Court precedent establishes a number of conditions which must be met to create a legal foundation for a contempt prosecution, including that the committee must disallow the constitutional privilege objection and clearly tell the witness an answer is demanded, and the witness must be presented with a clear-cut choice between compliance and non-compliance, knowing non-compliance risks prosecution. Rosenberg concludes these conditions were not met, and if a criminal contempt prosecution were attempted, it "will be dismissed."
Brand told CBS News that based on the precedent, any attempts to move ahead with a contempt charge would go nowhere. But, he doesn't take the committee seriously, "I think what they're after is political theater, and that's what they got." He explained that if the committee really wanted to hear from Lerner, they "could have granted her immunity and they'd already have her testimony by now."
I agree. Issa is clearly engaged in political theatre, but to what purpose? His seat is seemingly safe. He carried the seat with a 16% plurality, albeit the smallest of his career. He’s not making friends in Congress by harassing and endlessly opening investigations that end up seeing him embarrassed time and again in the national press. And his, let’s call it “personal history,” is such that any attempt to run for national office will see him humiliated and out of politics.
Not an unpleasant thought to me, and I can imagine he has yes-men all around him ignoring the elephant in the room, but he has to have it somewhere in his consciousness that it’s a “fall on the sword” moment if he were to announce for President or seek the VP nod.
Issa is like a third grader who gets away with a lie here and there, and is emboldened each day to lie a little more. People will miss his first lies, ignore the later ones, but eventually, he’ll get a spanking.