The House decided Wednesday that Lois Lerner is in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify about the IRS targeting scandal, despite a subpoena that demanded her testimony.
Members voted 231-187 to find Lerner in contempt, a vote that saw six Democrats join Republicans.
The dramatic House vote caps off a year of Republican attempts to investigate the IRS’s decision to apply extra scrutiny to conservative groups, many of which were seeking tax-exempt status in the run-up to the 2012 election.
Republicans say the IRS thwarted the activities of these groups in an effort to sway the election, and that only conservative groups were affected. But after a year of investigating, House Oversight & Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said the contempt vote was necessary.
“It is disappointing that things have come to this point,” said Issa, who defended that vote by arguing that Lerner is a key figure in the scandal. “The facts lead to Lois Lerner,” he said.
Democrats have argued for weeks that Republicans have not uncovered any evidence that a scandal exists, and on Wednesday they accused the GOP of fluffing up the issue for political reasons.
“We’re about to vote on a resolution that is really a partisan political message,” said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). “Republicans once again are showing that they are more interested in partisan election-year gimmicks than working in a bipartisan way to tackle our country’s most pressing challenges.”
A few Democrats accused the GOP of employing McCarthy-era tactics in pursuing Lerner so aggressively with the contempt vote. “I will not walk a path that has been tread by Senator McCarthy in the House Un-American Activities Committee,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the Oversight Committee.
But Republicans accused Democrats of confusing a process vote for a political vote. GOP members said the vote is procedural in nature, and will act as a formal referral of the matter from the House to the Justice Department.
Issa stressed during the debate that the contempt vote is not the same as putting Lerner on trial, and is instead an attempt to send the matter to a court, so the court can determine whether Lerner must testify in Congress. Other Republicans agreed the vote is an example of using the process available to Congress to get a legal opinion on the matter.
“This is the next step,” said Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas). “It will preserve the sanctity and power of this body – whether it’s Democrats or Republicans in charge for anyone who attempts to skirt justice and provide truth.”
Republicans pursued the contempt vote after a year of trying unsuccessfully to get Lerner to testify. Lerner was first subpoenaed to testify about the IRS scandal in Issa’s committee in May 2013. In that hearing, she made an opening statement in which she said, “I have not done anything wrong,” among other things.
After that, she said she would invoke her Fifth Amendment right not to testify and possibly incriminate herself.
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) argued at the time that by making her opening statement, Lerner had waived her Fifth Amendment rights.
The committee later decided Gowdy was right, and voted that Lerner had waived her rights. But when called back before the Committee in March 2014, Lerner continued to invoke her Fifth Amendment right not to testify.
Republicans said Lerner further undermined her attempt to plead the Fifth Amendment by meeting with Justice Department officials about the scandal.
“When you waive it in one proceeding you can’t exercise it somewhere else, according to the case law here in the District of Columbia,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said during Wednesday’s debate.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) praised the resolution as a way to ensure the IRS does not inject politics into its work.
“The very idea of the IRS being used to intimidate and silence critics of a certain political philosophy is egregious,” Cantor said. “Conservatives were routinely targeted and silenced by the IRS leading up to the 2012 election, unjustly and with malice.”
Cantor also said Lerner needs to be seen in contempt because she was a paid government employee who has refused to talk about her actions in the body that represents the people.
“As a public servant, she decided to forgo cooperation, to forgo truth and transparency,” he said. “Day after day, action after action, Ms. Lerner exposed herself as a servant to her political philosophy rather than a servant to the American people.”
In a separate vote, the House also approved a resolution calling on Attorney General Eric Holder to appoint a special counsel to investigate the targeting scandal. The House passed this language 250-168 — 26 Democrats joined the GOP in that vote.
Because Department of Justice officials have already leaked that they are unlikely to prosecute anyone in the case, Republicans say Justice has lost all objectivity in the case, and that a special counsel is needed.