The voices of Tax Policy Center's researchers and staff
The 2016 Republican Party platform demands that Congress impeach and convict Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Commissioner John Koskinen. His “high crimes and misdemeanors” primarily consist of annoying congressional leaders and heading an agency charged with interpreting and enforcing the incoherent tax laws that Congress has inflicted on the American public—the definition of a thankless job. Impeaching the commissioner may be good political theater, but it's bad for the country.
Over the years, the IRS has been led by a long list of admirable public servants of both parties. One, Mort Caplin, just celebrated his 100th birthday. Mort, a war hero decorated for valor at Normandy, probably saw serving as JFK’s Commissioner as a comparatively safe job.
Current Commissioner John Koskinen is only dodging metaphorical bullets, but the hail of fire is unrelenting.
Koskinen, who is 77, has had a remarkable career. Following many years in public service, he spent two decades reviving failing companies for an investment banking firm. He tried to retire but instead returned to public service—helping the government navigate the Y2K transition without a hitch. After trying to retire again, President Obama asked Koskinen to manage one more turn-around—this time to improve operations at the long-troubled IRS. His highest profile task: to undo the damage from the agency’s targeting for heightened scrutiny tea party and other conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status.
I imagine that the White House job offer sounded something like this: “John, I want you to walk away from your cushy retirement to take over an agency in crisis. Your compensation will be a paycheck you don't need and an unending series of attacks from congressional demagogues and partisan media. And, by the way, don’t look for us to publicly defend you because no politician will stand up for the IRS.”
Cue the music from Mission Impossible, but Mr. Koskinen was a great choice to rescue the reviled but essential agency. And he truly has an exceptional sense of public service.
He probably didn't anticipate that his hard work would result in some House leaders and the official GOP platform calling for his impeachment. The charges: some emails lost by IRS staff and making a House committee wait a few weeks before responding to a subpoena. The same Treasury inspector general who flagged the targeting of conservative groups called Koskinen “exceptionally cooperative.” (AEI’s Norm Ornstein published an excellent dissection of what he calls the House “show trial” in The Atlantic.)
To their credit, Ways & Means Committee Chair Kevin Brady (R-TX) and Senate Finance Committee Chair Orrin Hatch (R-UT) have declined to join the mob.
Koskinen, who is tough as nails, will be okay, but the damage to our fiscal system could be longer lasting. If the goal is to improve the IRS—as it should be—the agency needs more people like Koskinen, Caplin, and the admirable souls who served between them (many of whom have rallied to Koskinen’s defense). Public servants willing to take on the enormous challenges facing the IRS shouldn't have to face a hail of metaphorical bullets for trying to do their job.
Posts and Comments are solely the opinion of the author and not that of the Tax Policy Center, Urban Institute, or Brookings Institution.
Internal Revenue Service Commissioner John Koskinen is sworn in on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, June 20, 2014, prior to testifying before the House Ways and Means Committee hearing on whether tea party groups were improperly targeted for increased scrutiny by the IRS. The IRS asserts it can't produce emails from seven officials connected to the tea party investigation because of computer crashes, including the emails from Lois Lerner, the former IRS official at the center of the investigation who has invoked her Fifth Amendment right at least nine times to avoid answering lawmakers' questions. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)