The U.S. Congress operates under two sets of rules, one for the House of Representatives and another for the Senate. The rules in the House are essentially designed to enable the majority party (now the Republicans) to pass legislation at will. On the other hand, the rules in the Senate are designed to enable the minority party (now the Democrats) to block legislation at will. If people wanted to design a government in which the representatives were powerless to act absent bipartisan agreement, these rules would fulfill their wildest dreams.
Because the House majority can generally pass legislation at will – without regard to whether that legislation will ever become law – the matters that come up for a vote on the House floor generally reflect the priorities of the House leadership. This largely explains why the House has engaged in the quixotic act of voting more than 50 times to repeal some or all of the Affordable Care Act.
But the matters that reach the House floor do not always reflect the leaders’ priorities. A subset of House Republicans often disagrees with the priorities of their leaders. And the rules allow them to force a floor vote. Their most recent override of leadership’s priorities involves bringing to the House floor a resolution to impeach John Koskinen, who has served as commissioner of internal revenue for the past 33 months – perhaps the longest 33 months of his life. And here I side with leadership.
Koskinen was brought in to help the IRS recover from a 2013 scandal over its handling of applications for tax-exempt status by both right- and left-leaning groups. He took charge of the agency, bringing a can-do attitude and expertise from his experience in private industry. He cleaned house in the offending office and changed the way the IRS processes applications for tax exemption.
Koskinen’s problem was that he took office before congressional Republicans had extracted their pound of flesh from the agency that everyone loves to hate. Having decided upfront that the Obama administration had used the IRS to target its political opponents – a conclusion, unlike President Nixon’s well-documented enemies list, wholly unsupported by the evidence – Republicans began investigations to prove their predetermined conclusion. When they found no proof, they attacked Koskinen for failing to produce evidence confirming their view of what happened.
And it wasn’t just Koskinen. Viewing his alleged non-responsiveness as indicative of the agency’s overall unwillingness to perform sufficient penance for the sins committed by a few employees in one small corner of the agency, Congress placed a tourniquet on the IRS budget. And when that failed to elicit the desired outcome – whatever that might be – Congress tightened the tourniquet.
Here’s the problem: In an effort to punish the IRS institutionally, Congress has punished 90,000-plus dedicated employees who did nothing wrong, along with millions of American taxpayers. The best and brightest IRS employees are leaving – and they are not being replaced. Constituents endure unbearable wait times to get IRS assistance and receive poor service when they manage to reach a human being.
What is Congress’s goal? If it expects to improve taxpayer service by starving the IRS budget, impeaching its leader, and berating its employees, Congress will be disappointed. The longer the beatings continue, the harder it will be for the IRS to attract great – or even competent – leaders and employees, and the longer it will take for Americans actually to receive the service they deserve from the IRS.
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