Via NRO, this isn’t really a surprise. Josh Marshall and Ezra Klein both called for Lerner to go yesterday, a day after their little powwow at the White House. Maybe that’s a coincidence or maybe it’s something more, but either way it’s proof that even liberals thought it was time for another sacrifice to appease the scandal gods.
Lois Lerner, the Internal Revenue Service’s director of exempt organizations, has been placed on administrative leave, according to a source in the agency’s Cincinnati office.
Lerner on Thursday afternoon sent an e-mail to employees in the exempt organizations division she oversees stating, “Due to the events of recent days, I am on administrative leave starting today. An announcement will be made shortly informing you who will be acting while I am on administrative leave. I know all of you will continue to support EO’s mission during these difficult times.” She concluded, “I thank you for all your hard work and dedication,” adding, “The work you do is important.”
Old White House ally Carl Levin and new White House ally John McCain sent the IRS a letter just this morning calling for Lerner’s termination, and now here we are.
Why “administrative leave” instead of a firing? Three reasons. One: Now that Lerner’s stated publicly that she did no wrong and invoked her Fifth Amendment right in Congress, the Due Process President probably doesn’t want to pull the trapdoor until she’s given her side of the story. If in fact it turns out that the order to target conservative groups came from somewhere else, canning her straightaway would make a bad situation worse. Two: As we know from Benghazi, “administrative leave” is the administration’s preferred way to handle a crisis. It’s a nice middle ground between doing nothing at all, which plays badly with voters, and firing someone outright. Why kick someone off the payroll when you can simply “suspend” them, keep the checks coming so they stay quiet, and then quietly reinstate them later after the public’s stopped paying attention?
And three, as Dan Foster reminds us today at NRO: It’s exceedingly hard to fire a federal employee, thanks in part to the sort of government unions that are routinely championed by Barack Obama.
[A]s a civil servant, she is protected by both the full weight of federal law and the advocacy of a powerful union, making her tricky to get rid of…
Part of the reason so few federal workers are let go is surely the, shall we say, culture of lowered expectations synonymous with government bureaucracy. But the greater part of it is that firings are complex and time-consuming. Forty-nine states have “at-will” employment laws, meaning that, specific contracts and covenants aside, a private-sector employer can let an employee go for any reason at all, with a few exceptions for things like discrimination and (ironically enough) the intimidation of whistleblowers. But in Washington, the process can take 18 months or more.
“It’s much more difficult to fire government workers, because it requires much more evidence of wrongdoing, and it is a longer process for creating the paperwork, for documenting it, and so forth,” Donald Kettl, dean of the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy and a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings, tells me. “There are lots of cases where supervisors give up, and either decide it’s easier to transfer [a poor employee] or, in the time-honored tradition, to promote them.”
Exit question: Will this affect Lerner’s willingness to testify? If she feels wronged by being suspended, it might convince her to give up the goods on some higher-up, assuming she has the goods. But then, that’s the virtue of administrative leave from the IRS’s perspective — by keeping her employed, they’re giving her an incentive to keep her mouth shut. If she plays ball and stays silent, there may yet be a job for her again a few months from now.
Update: Can’t fire her for the reasons stated above, so there’s only one way to get her out the door for good. No dice:
Sen. Grassley stmt: "My understanding is the new acting IRS commissioner asked for Ms. Lerner’s resignation, and she refused to resign."
— Eamon Javers (@EamonJavers) May 23, 2013
If they wanted her gone, does that mean they’re not worried about what she might say in testimony? They’re taking a gamble.