The House Ways and Means Committee voted today to urge the Justice Department to consider criminal charges against former Internal Revenue Service official Lois Lerner. There is good reason to believe Lerner violated the law by directing a discriminatory campaign by the tax agency against conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status. But neither committee chairman Dave Camp nor any other member of the Republican majority in the House is under any illusions about whether Attorney General Eric Holder and his staff will act on their recommendation. Though the Justice Department has been investigating this scandal since it came to light, there is little reason to believe they will act against Lerner or anyone else involved in the mess at the IRS. Democrats believe that the only reason the House GOP caucus is still focusing on Lerner long after most of the news media got bored with the story or took the hint from the White House to move along is that they still harbor the hope that her testimony could implicate the administration in the scandal and prove the illegal behavior was not just the actions of a “rogue” agency office in Cincinnati.
But whether or not they’re right about that, Lerner remains the key figure in a scandal about which we’ve learned little since the initial flurry of coverage in 2013. Since Lerner invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination when called before the House Oversight Committee last year (though not before she also claimed to have done no wrong and thereby, at least in theory, waiving her Fifth Amendment rights), the question of her fate has been held hostage to an undignified spat between that committee’s Republican Chair Darrell Issa and ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings. But if Republicans — and anyone else for that matter — want to get to the bottom of this affair, they’re going to have to find a way to make Lerner talk. And though Issa is seemingly loath to give up the fight to indict her for contempt that means offering Lerner immunity.
We don’t know if, as many conservatives seem to take as an article of faith, Lerner and other IRS officials were acting on orders from higher up in the food chain. Given Lerner’s own past tangles with conservatives, there is good reason to believe she was an eager participant and perhaps was responding to the open hints about targeting conservatives and Tea Partiers issued by an administration determined to demonize their opponents. But given that there is little chance that Holder will act decisively to find out the truth about the IRS, the only way Lerner can be persuaded to talk is if Issa and his colleagues find a way to get her back in the witness chair prepared to talk.
As he seems to have done successfully with the fallout from the Benghazi terror attack and the lies told by administration figures about what happened, the president is seeking to run out the clock on the IRS. A year after the initial news that provoked outrage and even an apology of sorts from Obama, the mainstream press has moved on and Democrats are dismissing the issue as a partisan talking point rather than a blatant violation of trust that ought to concern both parties. To some extent this is the fault of Issa and House Republicans who have preferred to engage in verbal fisticuffs with Democrats rather than engaging them in an investigation that the president and his party would like to terminate. But no matter who’s fault this is, unless Republicans act soon to use their leverage with Lerner to get her to tell the truth, it will soon be too late to get to the bottom of a an act of criminal misbehavior that cries out for justice.