WASHINGTON – Everything Rep. Darrell Issa knows about impeachment he learned from Wikipedia.
At Tuesday’s House Judiciary Committee hearing to consider the impeachment of Internal Revenue Service Commissioner John Koskinen, Issa, the California Republican and dogged investigator of the Obama administration, confessed he was relying on an open-source website.
“You and I are not lawyers,” Issa told Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who was presenting the panel with the legal case for impeaching Koskinen, “so we’ll tax each other a little bit on a constitutional question. According to Wikipedia, at least, the definition of high crimes and misdemeanors constitutionally says it covers allegations of misconduct. ... “
Issa then questioned Chaffetz about each of the examples cited by Wikipedia contributors.
This was a fitting close to the congressional probes of the Obama years. Again and again, Republicans in Congress have dug into President Barack Obama’s White House, and each time they have failed to unearth high-level scandal.
Now House Republicans are taking up the low-probability impeachment of the IRS commissioner – even though Koskinen wasn’t even working at the IRS until well after the behavior in question, the targeting of conservative political groups, had allegedly occurred.
Only three executive-branch officials have been impeached by the House in all of U.S. history, as my colleague Lisa Rein has noted: Presidents Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, and a secretary of war (In 1876). The case against Koskinen is weak: The Justice Department declined to launch a prosecution, saying its investigation found no evidence that IRS officials acted on political motives. Both Justice and an inspector general first appointed by President George W. Bush cast doubt on lawmakers’ allegations that there was a conspiracy to destroy or hide evidence or hide it from investigators.
And so Obama’s congressional accusers defined impeachment down.
“I don’t believe you have to prove intent,” Chaffetz alleged Tuesday.
“False testimony or dereliction of duty is still impeachable whether or not the Justice Department determines it as a crime,” Issa intoned.
“The notion that you can only impeach someone that commits an actual violation of the criminal code is nonsense,” asserted Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C.
The Obama-hunters have been thwarted by a relatively scandal-free administration. Second-term scandals are the norm: Nixon had Watergate, Reagan had Iran-contra, Clinton had Monica Lewinsky, and George W. Bush had the Valerie Plame affair, which led to the conviction of Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff. But Obama?
“The Obama administration has been remarkably scandal-free,” David Brooks, a conservative New York Times columnist, wrote this year. Conservative critics of the administration protested that assessment by listing a variety of controversies: a gun-running sting gone bad, mistreated veterans, the botched rollout of HealthCare.gov, the Bowe Bergdahl prisoner exchange, stimulus funds wasted, Edward Snowden’s leaks, Secret Service debauchery, the harassment of whistleblowers and journalists, the IRS targeting, Hillary Clinton’s email server and Benghazi.
There have, no doubt, been screw-ups: failures of policy, misbehavior and poor management. But Obama’s accusers have yet to document high-level malfeasance or corruption, and in the case of Benghazi, even some investigations led by Republicans have discredited the allegation.
Support for the impeachment inquisitors Tuesday was iffy: Half the seats in the room were empty when they began, and two hours later, 25 percent were filled. Koskinen blew off the panel. GOP leaders, who stalled the hearing for months, didn’t allow “impeachment” to be used in the title.
Chaffetz made the case for impeachment with a 10-minute video -- part documentary, part attack ad -- narrated by one of his staffers: “This was orchestrated. It was planned. ... Possibility of criminal activity.”
Chaffetz rationalized his use of the nuclear option of impeachment this way: “Rather than Congress continuing to whine and complain about ... the executive branch, the founders gave us tools.”
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, asked if this tool might connect the scandal to the White House.
Chaffetz acknowledged that “I’ve seen no evidence of that.”
But who cares about evidence? By the impeachment standard House Republicans set, the punishment needn’t fit the crime -- or any crime. “There are lots of ways to screw up in your job that don’t rise to the level of meeting the U.S. criminal code,” Gowdy argued. “The failure to perform the duties of your office could be an impeachable offense.”
If so, half the members of Congress would be out of work.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.