TIME Congress

House Republicans vs. Lerner: Questions About the IRS Targeting Scandal

A TIME guide to the controversy over IRS targeting

A panel of House Republicans voted on Thursday to hold former IRS official Lois Lerner in contempt of Congress, citing her refusal to answer questions about the agency’s targeting of conservative organizations for special scrutiny.

The 21-12 vote by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which has been probing the alleged abuse since the scandal erupted last spring, broke along party lines: each of the panel’s Republicans voted to censure Lerner, while the Democrats on the committee opposed the resolution. The vote comes a day after Republicans on a separate committee formally requested the Department of Justice to open a criminal investigation of Lerner.

Like most political dramas, the ongoing outrage over the agency’s targeting of conservative groups sits at the intersection of legitimate concern and political opportunism. Since it can be difficult to separate one from the next, here is TIME’s handy guide to the so-called IRS scandal and the woman who has been made its public face:

Who is Lois Lerner?

Lerner, 63, used to run the IRS division in charge of reviewing applications from groups seeking tax-exempt status. Last May, she revealed at a legal conference that the IRS had inappropriately flagged conservative groups for special review, slowing down their application process. Republicans were incensed. Lerner was placed on paid leave as the brouhaha intensified. She retired in September.

What did Lerner do?

According to Republicans, Lerner used her position as head of the relevant IRS division to improperly influence the agency’s policy, singling out conservative groups—including influential outfits like Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS—for special scrutiny. According to an investigation conducted by the House Committee on Ways and Means, 83% of the roughly 300 organizations whose applications for tax-exempt status were snarled held conservative views. While the division of Exempt Organizations was pursuing conservative groups like Crossroads, it appeared to ignore the actions of left-leaning counterparts like Priorities USA.

The panel alleges that Lerner displayed “extreme bias” toward conservative groups while “turning a blind eye” toward similar liberal organizations, made misleading statements during a Treasury Department investigation of the matter and may have disclosed confidential taxpayer information. Documents disclosed during the probe show that Lerner made a remark (perhaps in jest) in a January 2013 email about finding at a job at a top liberal social-welfare organization.

What does Lerner say about this?

Lerner was the first person to publicly acknowledge that the IRS behavior was “inappropriate.” Since then, she hasn’t said much. Called for testimony before the House Oversight Committee last May, she made an opening statement in defense of her actions. “I have done nothing wrong,” she said. Then she invoked the Fifth Amendment, and has since refused to testify.

Why is she being held in contempt?

Republicans argue that Lerner’s decision to speak in her own defense, albeit briefly, last year waives her Fifth Amendment privileges. Lawyers are split on whether this interpretation of the Fifth Amendment is accurate. But the GOP decided to hold her in contempt of Congress for refusing to comply with a subpoena.

What happens next?

The matter could go before the full House, which would be expected to approve a resolution holding Lerner in contempt.

Will she face criminal charges?

It’s unclear. It is unlikely the Department of Justice will be inclined to prosecute Lerner. It has rarely done so in the past. Democrats believe the campaign against Lerner is a partisan witchhunt, and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder—who was held in contempt by the House in 2012 in connection with an investigation into the so-called Fast and Furious case—seems particularly unlikely to cave to the Congressional GOP. Congress could also ask a judge to enforce the subpoena. But it would be a time-consuming process that would almost certainly outlast this Congress.

Alternately, House Republicans could resort to a dusty gambit known as “inherent contempt” to put Lerner in jail. According to a Congressional Research Service report:

Under the inherent contempt power the individual is brought before the House or Senate by the Sergeant-at-Arms, tried at the bar of the body, and can be imprisoned or
detained in the Capitol or perhaps elsewhere. The purpose of the imprisonment or other sanction may be either punitive or coercive. Thus, the witness can be imprisoned for a specified period of time as punishment, or for an indefinite period (but not, at least by the House, beyond the end of a session of the Congress) until he agrees to comply.

In other words, Lerner could theoretically be held until January 2015. Republicans have not publicly ruled out the inherent contempt option, but it seems highly unlikely. The last such case appears to have been in 1935.

So what’s the likeliest option?

House Republicans continue making political hay of the issue in the run-up to November’s elections, in an attempt to highlight what they say is the Obama Administration’s systematic abuse of power. Lerner stays silent. The issue goes nowhere—but doesn’t go away. And the much-needed crackdown on political groups masquerading as social-welfare organizations becomes ever more unlikely.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser