Congress takes up Lerner, Benghazi matters


It’s been a particularly busy week for me up in Washington, so I’ll try to get through everything as swiftly as possible.

First order of business - I was asked to bring the resolution to the House floor holding Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress for her refusal to testify regarding her role in the IRS targeting scandal.

Lerner

For anybody who may not remember the chronology, more than a year ago, Ms. Lerner (a senior official at the IRS), became aware that an IRS Inspector General report citing numerous instances of inappropriate targeting of conservative groups was about to be released. Ms. Lerner, speaking at an industry conference allegedly planted somebody in the crowd to ask her about the situation.

In response to that question, Ms. Lerner acknowledged that inappropriate behavior had taken place and that the issue had been addressed… in other words, ‘nothing to see here'.

Well, that set off a firestorm.

Sure enough, a few days later the IG’s report came out and the nation found out that numerous employees within the IRS had been screening applications for groups with Tea Party sounding names and subjecting them to unbelievable levels of scrutiny. Some were allegedly even asked for the minutes of their meetings and so forth.

All told, dozens and dozens of conservative-leaning groups were subjected to months of delays, and so forth. The key takeaway - a powerful federal agency, perhaps the most feared out of them all, used its power to punish critics of the President.

The shock and outrage were widespread. The loss of trust among the American people was even broader. Adding insult to injury, the Justice Department then selected an attorney who’d donated over $6,000 to Obama’s campaign and the DNC to head the investigation.

For somebody like me, that is wholly unacceptable. I don’t care which party was targeted, or whose administration did the targeting. In a free country, this kind of behavior cannot, and will not, be tolerated.

The specific issue with Ms. Lerner is that she was subpoenaed and ordered to appear before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. When Ms. Lerner appeared, she offered an opening statement in which she asserted her innocence, made 17 separate factual assertions and the refused to answer any questions, citing her Fifth Amendment protections from self-incrimination.

To be sure, the Fifth Amendment is a sacred right in this country. According to the Constitution, you cannot be forced to incriminate yourself. That is a fundamental and important tenant of our legal system. But you can’t use that protection selectively. You can’t make factual assertions professing your innocence and then refuse to allow questions about those assertions.

During the course of a year, Ms. Lerner’s refusal to answer those questions (despite talking to two other government agencies) resulted in a resolution holding her in contempt of Congress.

Personally, I think the American people have been done a disservice over the course of this whole process. Both sides, in my opinion, have let partisan bickering cloud the deeper issue. What happened was shockingly unacceptable.

Both sides should be focused on finding out what happened, who was responsible, and holding them to account. This kind of thing can never be allowed to happen. If we let it slide, it opens the door to a form of government abuse that I don’t think any Americans want to see.

So that’s that. The House found Ms. Lerner in contempt. What happens next, including potential jail time, will be up to a Grand Jury and the courts. For now, the House has stated its findings.

Benghazi

The second thing I wanted to flag from this week is the establishment of a Special Committee to investigate what happened in Benghazi.

As has been the case with the IRS targeting scandal, "Fast and Furious," and a handful of other high-profile scandals, the White House has refused to provide documents, witnesses, corrections for the record, and so forth. Here again, when we had a United States ambassador and three other American personnel killed, one would think this would be a bipartisan issue.

But I think Democrats in Congress feel like digging into these issues is a direct attack on President Obama. I don’t view my role as a member of Congress that way – and neither does the Constitution.

I frankly don’t care which party is in charge. Congress has a responsibility to be a check on the Executive Branch. If the President oversteps his bounds or fails the country in some way, it is the responsibility of the Legislative Branch to conduct oversight and to hold the President accountable to the people. This was pretty fundamental to the Founders.

So when a party – either party – decides that personal and political loyalty is more important than effective oversight, we have a big problem. Both sides have been guilty of that over time.

But take a situation like what happened in Benghazi, or the IRS targeting or what’s been going on with the wrongful deaths at the VA. When a tragedy like that occurs, we have a responsibility to pursue the facts and to shine a light on what happened so that it never, ever happens again.

All of us are accountable to the citizens of this country. Whether you hold elected office, are appointed by the President, or are a career civil servant, we are all accountable to the people. Period.

So when things like this happen, and nobody is disciplined and documents are withheld from the people’s representatives, further steps must be taken. We cannot let things like this go unanswered. If we do, things like this will keep happening.

So, if it takes a contempt citation, so be it. If it requires a Special Committee to investigate, we’ll do that, too. Do I think it should have ever come to this? I certainly do not. And I sincerely wish it hadn’t come to this.

But when push comes to shove, our responsibility is to the American people and that’s where the discussion starts and stops.

That’s about it for now. I’ve got more to report on the Defense Authorization that the House Armed Services Committee marked up this week as well as a few other items, but we should have some time next week to discuss that.

As always, if there is anything my staff or I can do to be of service, please let me know.

Richard Nugent,
Member of Congress, 11th Congressional District