The United States House of Representatives voted 231-187 today to find Lois Lerner—former Director of the Exempt Organizations division of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS)—in contempt of Congress.
In May 2013, Lerner publicly acknowledged that the IRS had been targeting conservative 501(c)(4) organizations for abusive investigations and unreasonable delays in recognizing their tax exempt status. This is one of the many serious scandals to rock President Barack Obama’s (D) administration. Lerner, for her part, apologized for the targeting, which she blamed on low-level employees at the IRS’s office in Cincinnati, Ohio. When called before a congressional committee, Lerner chose to invoke her Fifth Amendment right not to self-incriminate.
When government officials lie and commit crimes, I am tough on them. I advocated the appointment of special prosecutors to investigate and charge both former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales (R) and current Attorney General Eric Holder (D) with perjury. I supported the decision to find Holder in contempt of Congress for refusing to provide subpoenaed documents to investigators.
But I don’t support finding Lerner in contempt of Congress. Holder committed a crime when he lied to Congress (under oath), and when he refused to produce documents that had been duly subpoenaed. Lerner, however, committed no crime when she invoked her Fifth Amendment rights.
Obama should appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the IRS abuses—and Lerner, if appropriate. The people responsible for trampling citizens’ rights in this case and all others should be impeached or prosecuted. But we can’t fight civil liberty abuses by violating others’ civil liberties. Conservative 501(c)(4) groups, and phone and Internet users, and everybody else who has had their liberties threatened by this administration deserve the full protection of the Bill of Rights . . . but so does Lois Lerner.
The argument being put forth by some congressional Republicans is that, because Lerner talked about the IRS abuses in public, she has somehow waived her Fifth Amendment protections. I don’t even know where to begin with this. Lerner can choose to answer some questions and not others, or refuse to answer any questions at all, and her previous statements on the topic—in or out of Congress—have nothing to do with it.
What the IRS did was wrong—a serious violation of Americans’ civil liberties. Finding somebody in contempt of Congress for the ‘crime’ of invoking her Fifth Amendment rights is an equally serious violation of an American’s civil liberties. If Republicans want to be taken seriously as the defenders of the Bill of Rights, they can’t pick and choose which amendments they will support and which ones they will ignore. Either all of our enumerated rights are worth defending, or none of them are.