Congressional Democrats' frustration with the leadership of Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Government Oversight Committee, boiled over Friday during a hearing over whether or not a top Internal Revenue Service official waived her right against self-incrimination during an earlier appearance.
The committee voted along partisan lines that Lois Lerner, who was in charge of the IRS unit accused of inappropriately scrutinizing conservative political groups seeking tax exempt status, waived her right to invoke the Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate herself when she appeared before the panel earlier this summer. Lerner had delivered a brief statement that said she had broken no lawsand done nothing wrong before invoking her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and said she would answer no questions.
"The resolution finding Lois Lerner waived her Fifth Amendment privileges on May 22, 2013 is approved," Issa said.
But before the tally, Democrats said they were sick of Issa's "witch hunts" and "McCarthy-ite" tactics, referring to Sen. Joe McCarthy, who led the charge to out suspected Communists in American politics during the 1950's.
"It's the same grandstanding we've seen repeatedly in this committee; the chairman continues to focus this committee on hearings and witch hunts rather than identifying solutions to make reforms to government programs and agencies," said Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev. "This is no longer just about Lois Lerner, there are clearly problems at the IRS. Instead of this resolution why aren't we following up on the nine recommendations that the inspector general has already made?"
The House Oversight Committee is often used as a partisan cudgel when the majority party differs from that in the White House because it's job is to scrutinize the executive branch. But the vitriol and barbs tossed between Republicans and Democrats currently on the committee may have reached new levels. Democrats say Issa has frozen them out of committee reports and transcripts they have the right to access, choosing instead to leak them for political advantage. Republicans charge that Democrats are too quick to defend the White House and would likely jeopardize the on-going IRS investigation if given full access to all the documents.
When the vote was taken, Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wisc., said, "No to McCarthy."
Issa interrupted the roll call and asked Pocan to clarify what he was voting no to.
"I am voting no to the McCarthy-ite tactics we are having today, that our side isn't even allowed to finish talking about, so I am voting no," Pocan responded.
Earlier in the meeting, when Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., questioned why Democrats were not allowed to see the report the House counsel initiated at the request of Issa to determine whether or not Lerner had waived her rights.
"He's the House counsel, he gives an opinion to the members of the House," he said. "Which members over here did you not want to see the report?"
When Issa replied, "The gentleman's time is expired;" Tierney retorted, "Well all those excuses were lame, too."
Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond's School of Law, says the legal grounds surrounding waiving Fifth Amendment rights is murky.
"It's an area that's unclear, but the fact that she gave a very general denial probably should not be enough [to waive her right] if it were in a court of law," he says. "It does lead you to think it is a political exercise that isn't going to lead to much substantive elucidation. I think the law is not clear and that you can make a good argument that she did not waive it, but they can take a vote."
The IRS scandal has become a political football since Lerner first confessed to the inappropriate behavior earlier this year.