The Wall Street Journal: A Dangerous Rush to Impeach John Koskinen
By John Conyers
Sept. 22, 2016 7:15 p.m. ET
The power of impeachment is a responsibility entrusted to the House of Representatives by the Constitution and to the House Judiciary Committee by our peers. I take this charge very seriously—and, for the most part, so do my colleagues in the majority.
I have served on the House Judiciary Committee long enough now to see impeachment done right and to see impeachment done wrong. I have participated in six of the 19 impeachments approved by the House since its inception. I voted in favor of five of them. In the early 1970s I helped to draft articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon. I joined with 20 Democrats and six Republicans to send three of those articles to the House floor.
But I have never seen anything quite like the obsession of a few House members determined to impeach IRS Commissioner John Koskinen—without much evidence to back their claims, without an independent investigation by the House Judiciary Committee, and without even basic due process for the accused.
To be successful, the impeachment process must transcend party lines. Part of this is by design. Article I of the Constitution requires two-thirds of the Senate to convict on each article of impeachment—a threshold that has always required some degree of consensus.
Consensus matters in the House as well. We have built decades of precedent around the notion of formal, rigorous due process in impeachment proceedings. According to House rules, impeachment does not begin until the House approves a resolution that authorizes the Judiciary Committee to investigate whether impeachment is warranted.
The Judiciary Committee must carefully and independently review the evidence—even if it has already been analyzed by our colleagues on other committees. And we can only address allegations that are supported by the record and proven, not inferred.
Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.) summarized the importance of this practice in 2010, when the committee’s Task Force on Judicial Impeachment unanimously recommended four articles of impeachment against a federal judge. Mr. Goodlatte said: “This recommendation was the culmination of an exhaustive investigation by the task force, which included reviewing the records of past proceedings, rooting out new evidence that was never considered in previous investigations, conducting numerous interviews and depositions with firsthand witnesses, and conducting hearings to take the testimony of firsthand witnesses and federal scholars.”
This process is hard work. It takes time. But it is designed to separate truly substantive charges from merely expedient ones. And when the House Judiciary Committee follows its own precedent, we generally arrive at the right conclusion. In almost every modern case, a bipartisan consensus on impeachment in the House leads to a swift and successful impeachment in the Senate.
In the past few days, the actions of a small group of conservative House members threaten to break from this precedent and to lead us down a dangerous path. Earlier this year, they delivered an ultimatum to Speaker Paul Ryan (R., Wis.): Hold impeachment hearings in the House Judiciary Committee, or face a vote on this matter on the House floor. Speaker Ryan and Chairman Goodlatte opted for the hearings.
In May and June, the Committee held Parts I and II of a hearing to “Examine the Allegations of Misconduct against Commissioner John Koskinen.” As the carefully worded title would suggest, these were not formal impeachment hearings.
Last week this group struck again and attempted to force a vote on impeachment on the House floor. In the 11th hour, when it appeared they would fall short of the necessary votes, they withdrew the measure—and a third hearing was held Wednesday. This hearing was titled “Impeachment Articles Referred on John Koskinen, Part III.” Despite the name change, this hearing also was not an actual impeachment hearing. It was one more exploratory hearing in the series, with none of the hallmarks of real impeachment.
On the merits, Mr. Koskinen’s critics have simply failed to make their case. They have been unable to produce evidence that the commissioner acted in bad faith at any point in his tenure. The Senate Finance Committee, the Justice Department and the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration have all concluded that there is “no evidence” of intentional misconduct of any kind.
But even if there were some evidence of Mr. Koskinen’s wrongdoing, the push to impeach him without due process in the House Judiciary Committee is dangerously misguided. Never, in the history of this body, have we impeached a government official without first proving he has acted in deliberate bad faith.
Never, in modern practice, have we declined to provide the accused with the most basic due process: the right to counsel, the right to present evidence, and the right to question the evidence against him.
In this case, Mr. Koskinen has actually been denied access to the transcripts of interviews conducted by the House Committee on Government and Oversight Reform—interviews that we are told were key in forming the charges against him.
If the commissioner’s critics have their way, I fear we will have a new rule going forward: The House may impeach any government official, for any reason, without supplying evidence of deliberate wrongdoing, without an independent investigation, and without regard to basic fairness toward the accused.
Forcing a vote on impeachment in this manner will certainly not result in the removal of Commissioner Koskinen. Even if his critics succeed in the House, Senators of both parties have already stated their intent to bury the matter. So for all their efforts they will have profited nothing. And in the process they will have turned impeachment from a constitutional check of last resort into a tool of political convenience.
Mr. Conyers, a Democrat from Michigan, is the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee. This commentary is partly adapted from his Sept. 21 statement before the committee.