Oddly, the news media and Democratic leaders don't think it's a big deal when a federal official -- Lerner was the head of the unit that deals with tax-exempt organizations when she first invoked the Fifth last May -- won't answer questions about her actions as a federal official, but they are in a huff because the committee's chairman, Darrell Issa, abruptly called an end to the hearing and shut off the microphone.
Ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings said he wanted to ask "a procedural question." Then, as Cummings instead engaged in a rant in defense of Lerner, Issa again shut off the mic. Within a minute, it was back on, and Cummings continued to rail against what he sees as a one-sided investigation.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi later tweeted that Issa's "decision to silence a fellow Member of Congress was outrageous & disrespectful." The Washington Post's Dana Milbank denounced Issa for falling below "today's low standard of civility in Congress."
Issa exhibited shoddy manners. Worse, he lacked the discipline to not be baited by the crafty Cummings. Thus, Issa handed the left an excuse to make him the issue when the Internal Revenue Service's practice of going after the tea party cries out for public scrutiny. Lerner's refusal to answer questions, though it is the exercise of a constitutional right, should make all House members squirm.
Just what was Lerner doing on the taxpayer dime that she doesn't want to share?
Lerner's silence is especially unsettling given that her attorney William Taylor III told reporters that she had given a full interview to the Department of Justice with no grant of immunity. Lerner's lawyers, he said, have confidence that prosecutors, unlike Issa, are open-minded. The thing is that also unlike Issa, the Department of Justice is in a position to prosecute people.
"It does strike me as a little odd," Rutgers law professor George Thomas III told The Wall Street Journal. "One explanation is the one given by her lawyer. The other, darker explanation is that she and her lawyer think the DOJ is not interested in a serious investigation of the IRS treatment of these tax-exempt groups."
Could it be that Lerner's lawyers do not fear the often-terrifying Justice Department precisely because President Barack Obama already signaled there is no cause for concern because the IRS story is a "phony scandal"?