The House Oversight Committee investigating the Internal Revenue Service’s harassment of conservative activist groups put on quite a show Wednesday, and it was much needed. The IRS’ actions are a worse-than-Watergate scandal and a dire threat to the most fundamental foundations of a democratic governance that should have the American public heating up tar and plucking feathers, but it apparently requires the Fifth Amendment and an ugly shouting match to get it back in the news.
President Barack Obama has dismissed the controversy as a “phony scandal” and insisted there is “not even a smidgen of corruption” in the matter, assurances which seem to satisfy most of the news media, but Wednesday’s congresional proceedings provided a hard-to-ignore reminder that there is ample reason for doubt. Highly-placed IRS official Lois Lerner once again invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, ranking Democratic member Rep. Elijah Cummings went on an irrational and sound bite-worthy tirade about the impertinent questions that were put to her, and even the casual observer couldn’t help suspecting there was far more than a smidgen of corruption involved in this supposedly phony scandal.
There are valid reasons that the constitution forbids a court of law to consider testimony that has been compelled against a witnesses’ self-interest, but nothing in the constitution or common sense prohibits the court of public opinion from reaching the obvious conclusion that Lerner declined to answer questions on the grounds her answers might incriminate her because the answers would indeed be incriminating. When Lenrer “pleaded the Fifth” to such inevitable questions as to whether there was a smidgen of scandal involved in the IRS’ policies, even the most Obama-friendly news media were hard-pressed to downplay the glaring implications. Perhaps Lerner is the most highly-placed official in the federal government who worries about self-incrimination with honest answers to such queries, but Wednesday’s proceedings provide reason to think it might go even higher.
At the end of Lener’s repititive recitation of her Fifth Amendment rights ranking Democratic Rep. Cummings had a newsworthy temper tantrum about interrogation that had provoked the response. He decried the questioning as “one-sided” and “un-American,” as if the committee should have fealty to any side other than the truth and it were un-American to take a more approach, but his indignation was interrupted half-rant when Republican Committee Chairman Rep. Darrel Issa gaveled an end to the hearing and cut off the microphones. The testy exchange dominated the news coverage of the hearing, but even the most sympathetic accounts suggested that the questions being asked and the answers not being given are uncomfortable for the Democrats.
Reports indicate that Lerner is considering an offer of immunity that would allow her to shed more light on the matter without fear of legal consequences, and that she might find herself vulnerable to a charge of contempt of congress is she remains mum, but her silence will only feed a reasonable suspicion that a bona fide scandal is afoot and that it reaches the very highest levels of the executive branch of the government. The greater the outrage of the Democrats the more reason for suspicion, and a few more hearings like Wednesday’s might even knock Vladimir Putin’s bullying off the front pages.
— Bud Norman