Not much news came out of a House hearing Wednesday examining the ongoing IRS scandal. But it did serve as a good example of a time-honored sport on Capitol Hill: competitive politicking.
The hearing began with Rep. Elijah Cummings, the Democratic ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, sparring with Rep. Darrell Issa, the committee’s chairman. They took 15 minutes to bicker over whether Cummings had personally disparaged Issa.
“This is unseemly,” Cummings said at the beginning of Wednesday’s hearing. “It’s embarrassing. It is not a proper way to run an investigation or to spend millions of dollars in taxpayer funds.”
Issa wasn’t about to take Cummings’s comments lying down and proceed to his committee’s regular business.
“There are a number of words in the gentleman’s statements that disparage me, and I object to his words and debate, and ask that he withdraw or modify them,” Issa replied. “The decorum of this committee should not lead to personal attacks as to the intent of individuals on either side.”
But those personal attacks, it appears, were not limited to IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, who was at the hearing to testify in front of the committee. Koskinen—who has testified at least three separate times about Lois Lerner’s lost emails—appeared once again on Wednesday to answer what he knew about Lerner’s hard drive and when he knew it. Needless to say, not much news came out of his fourth appearance on the topic.
The hearing was significant, however, as an example of competitive politicking. With Benghazi taken out of his hands, Issa has turned his piercing gaze to the IRS scandal, alleging that the agency unfairly targeted tea-party groups seeking nonprofit status. As a result, Issa has been competing with Rep. Dave Camp, who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, for the glory of being the person to reveal the Truth About the IRS Scandal.
As Dana Milbank wrote in June:
When word came last week that the IRS had lost the e-mails, Camp’s panel said it would hold a hearing with Koskinen (voluntarily) appearing on Tuesday, June 24. Ten minutes after that announcement, Issa proclaimed that he was issuing a subpoena to Koskinen to force his appearance the night before Camp’s hearing—at 7 p.m. on Monday, June 23. The commissioner then discovered another opening in his schedule—and Camp leapfrogged Issa, moving his hearing up to Friday, June 20.
This left Issa in the unenviable position of holding a rare nighttime hearing Monday—and all the urgency it conveys—to question a witness who already had been thoroughly and fiercely cross-examined three days earlier. The halls of the Rayburn Building were quiet, and only half of Issa’s committee members were in the room as the hearing got underway 15 minutes late.
It’s Issa’s last year as chairman of the House Oversight Committee, and he only has so much time left with the gavel. So it’s understandable if he feels bitter about Camp stealing his thunder.
On Tuesday, the Ways and Means Committee came out with a statement that Lerner’s hard drive may have been “scratched,” like a broken mix CD.
Rep. Mark Meadows pounced on that news at Wednesday’s oversight hearing, asking Koskinen if he was concerned that Lerner’s hard drive may have been manually tampered with.
“If it’s accurate, would that concern you?” Meadows asked Koskinen before almost immediately cutting him off. “Let me tell you why it concerns me.” Meadows held up a laptop. “This is an HP laptop. To get to the hard drive, it is no easy task. You’ve got multiple screws that have to be taken to get to it. Then once you get to that, you actually have a hard drive inside that has seven more screws that have to be taken off to get to the hard drive in order for it to be scratched.”
Full of gravitas, Meadows continued: “Well, it concerns me, and I’m going to ask my staff to go and see how long it would actually take to get to that hard drive, if indeed it were scratched.”
Koskinen recently estimated the cost of his agency’s compliance with the committees’ investigations at $18 million so far. Now let’s see how much more it’ll take for congressional staffers to unscrew a hard drive.