The average American might have trouble differentiating between an “independent prosecutor,” a “special counsel” or an “independent counsel,” but a new poll by Quinnipiac University released Thursday shows that an overwhelming majority of the public wants someone other than the Justice Department to get to the bottom of the Internal Revenue Service scandal.
For a while it was unclear whether the uproar over revelations that the IRS had unfairly targeted Tea Party and other conservative groups was merely another inside-the-Beltway dustup that would gradually fade away, or a far more significant controversy that would permeate the public consciousness.
The Quinnipiac poll suggests that Americans not only are paying close attention to media coverage and congressional hearings into the scandal, but that they have little confidence that Attorney General Eric Holder and the Justice Department can fairly and thoroughly investigate the controversy and prosecute officials responsible for the heightened scrutiny of the conservative groups.
An overwhelming 76 percent of voters think an “independent prosecutor” should investigate the IRS controversy, the new poll shows, including 63 percent of all Democrats surveyed, 88 percent of Republicans and 78 percent of independents.
Not surprisingly, Democrats and Republicans differed greatly on questions of job approval and confidence in the president and the two parties on Capitol Hill. That’s a given. But in the matter of the IRS case, the poll showed near unanimity on the question of whether the powerful and feared agency ran amok in challenging organizations that were exercising their legal rights in seeking tax exemptions during the 2012 election campaign cycle.
“There is overwhelming bipartisan support for a special prosecutor to investigate the IRS," said Quinnipiac University Polling Institute Assistant Director Peter Brown in a statement. "Voters apparently don't like the idea of Attorney General Eric Holder investigating the matter himself, perhaps because they don't exactly think highly of him.”
Indeed, the embattled Holder, who would appoint a special investigator under existing law, received a positive rating from only 23 percent of those surveyed. Thirty-nine percent of Americans said they didn’t approve of his performance.
President Obama and congressional Republicans and Democrats have all voiced outrage and indignation over the IRS disclosures and have vowed to get to the bottom of the misconduct. But Obamas for now wants to leave the investigation to the Justice Department and the FBI, while lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are divided over the need to appoint a special prosecutor.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-OHIO) and other GOP leaders want to give Rep. Darrell Issa and other House investigators more time to probe the matter, with more hearings scheduled for next week. Some also voiced scepticism that any independent prosecutor handpicked by Holder would conduct an impartial investigation.
However, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), said recently that a special counsel might be needed. “They overstepped in a way people can identify with,” McConnell said. “Everybody knows the power of the IRS, and it’s about time they, in effect, got caught in a way that the American public fully understands.”
Katy Harriger, a Wake Forest University professor of politics and author of The Special Prosecutor in American Politics, issued words of caution: “People often forget that independent counsels investigate crime, not bad decision-making,” she said on her Website. “For the Attorney General to appoint a special prosecutor, there has to be at least the appearance of criminal wrongdoing. If the only alleged crime is someone misled Congress, I don’t think the investigation goes very far.”
The uproar over the IRS is one of three controversies engulfing the administration. The Justice Department has been sharply criticized for improperly seizing the phone records of Associated Press reporters in investigating a leak, while the administration has been accused of misleading the public about the Nov. 11 terrorist attack on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya that killed four Americans including the U.S. ambassador.
Preliminary soundings by pollsters suggested that Obama’s standing and job approval rating hadn’t suffered serious damage.
But the Quinnipiac poll released yesterday indicated that the gravity of the scandals has begun to chip away the president’s popularity. Obama’s approval rating was 48 percent to 45 percent on May 1, when Quinnipiac last surveyed on the subject, but now is in negative territory, with only 45 percent approving of his performance and 49 percent disapproving.
The president's biggest drop is among independent voters who give him a negative 37 - 57 percent score, compared to a negative 42 - 48 percent on May 1. By a 49 percent to 47 percent split, voters say Obama is honest and trustworthy. But that is down substantially from his 58 percent to 37 percent favorable rating back in September 2011.
It is also evident that voters are fairly discerning in assessing the relative importance of the festering scandals. For example, voters say by a margin of 43 percent to 32 percent that congressional criticism of the administration's handling of the terrorist attack in Libya is “just politics.”'
However, they say, 44 - 33 percent that members of Congress who criticize the way the administration handled the IRS matter are raising “legitimate concerns.” Top IRS officials have maintained that political beliefs played no role in the review process, only to have their claims contradicted by a recent Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration audit.
The report has led to three congressional committee hearings last week, the removal of the acting IRS commissioner, and claims by Obama administration officials that they were unaware of the practice. Multiple questions remain as to why the IRS leadership team misled House Republicans who asked specifically about this issue, with Lois Lerner, the head of the IRS tax exempt division, invoking her Fifth Amendment rights at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing a week ago.
Criticism of the Justice Department's seizure of journalists' phone records also raises “legitimate concerns,” voters say by a 37 percent to 24 percent margin. Of the three controversies, 44 percent of voters see the IRS probe as the most important, with 24 percent citing Benghazi and 15 percent picking the Justice Department’s snooping into reporters’ phone records.
Under current law, if the attorney general suspects criminal wrongdoing within the federal government, he can assign a special counsel to lead the investigation. The appointment does not need congressional approval, just notification to the chairman and ranking member of the House and Senate Judiciary committees. The special counsel can be dismissed by the attorney general in extraordinary circumstances.
There have been three independent counsels of this type who were chosen in this fashion. Two of the investigations took place in 1987, during the Reagan era, and involved probes of the Iran-Contra scandal and improper dealings between government officials and the Wedtech Corporation. The third was the 1994 investigation of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s involvement in the Madison Guaranty/Whitewater land deal.
Those independent counsels and their powers shouldn’t be confused with the most famous Independent Counsel of all -- Kenneth Starr -- whose report led to the impeachment of President Clinton. Starr’s Independent Counsel’s office acted under a statute inspired by the Nixon administration Watergate scandal that ran from 1978 until 1999.
Starr’s unrelenting and wide-ranging pursuit of Clinton sprawled into many areas – most notably Clinton’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. It also soured interest in both parties for renewing the independent-counsel statute when it finally expired in 1999.