Tax agency scandal thrusts Tea Party back into spotlight
Left adrift in the wake of President Barack Obama's November election victory, the anti-tax Tea Party is predicting renewed popularity and relevance -- thanks to the scandal now rocking the IRS.
The federal tax agency admitted this week that it inappropriately screened conservative groups, in particular those with "Tea Party" or "Patriots" in their names, as they sought tax-exempt status.
"A government that's this intrusive is clearly excessive," Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the movement's Tea Party Patriots umbrella group, said Thursday at an event coordinated by Congresswoman and one-time Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann.
"Tea Party groups have been waiting for years for the IRS to treat us fairly and equally. Instead, they have singled us out for discrimination and persecution."
Many had their applications for non-profit status delayed for months or even years. Some faced onerous questioning, or demands for a group's entire catalog of postings on social network sites like Facebook and Twitter.
A member of the group American Patriots Against Government Excess was asked to write a book report for the Internal Revenue Service for every book her group had read, Martin said.
Such revelations touched off a firestorm in a city where Obama's Democrats thought they might have seen the last of the Tea Party influence that shook up American politics in the 2010 mid-term elections, when several people aligned with the movement were elected to Congress.
Tea Party caucuses were formed in the House and Senate, and Republican House Speaker John Boehner appeared unable to bring the ultra-conservative faction into a compromise with Democrats on major legislation like debt reduction.
But along with Obama's November victory, his Democrats gained seats in both the House and Senate, and some key Tea Party politicians like congressman Allen West of Florida were voted out.
Political observers in Washington began wondering whether the small-government, small-tax movement was past its prime.
Then came the IRS controversy, which suddenly pushed the Tea Party movement onto the front pages of every major American newspaper and had a galvanizing effect on Republicans in general.
"I think you're going to see new interest by the American public in the Tea Party movement," Thomas Zawistowski, president of the Ohio Liberty Council, said at the Bachmann event.
"This is not just a vindication in this IRS case, but it's a kind of a vindication about this whole attack on the Tea Party. They tried to pin us as something we are not."
Despite Republican Mitt Romney losing the presidential election, many Tea Party lawmakers insist their movement is thriving.
"The Tea Party has not been fading. They have been busy trying to save America from this overreach of the federal government," argued Congressman Paul Broun of Georgia.
"I think the American people are seeing more and more that government's too big, too intrusive, taking too much of our money," said Broun, who is running for the Senate next year.
The grassroots movement took shape in 2009, emerging from the disaffection that anti-tax voters had with bloated government and the financial bailouts and stimulus plans of the Obama administration.
By 2010, hundreds of groups like the Texas Patriots Tea Party were applying for tax-exempt status through the IRS, and the agency bungled in formulating a way to scrutinize the applications.
The IRS acknowledged the mistakes and pledged to make changes. Obama ousted acting IRS chief Steven Miller, and another top official in the agency left as well.
But the damage was done, and seething mainstream Republicans stood shoulder to shoulder with Tea Party lawmakers and activists at Bachmann's event on the Capitol lawn, where top Senate Republican Mitch McConnell decried the IRS scandal as "runaway government at its worst."