WASHINGTON—Tea Party activists and congressional lawmakers joined forces outside the U.S. Capitol Thursday to condemn the growing list of controversies rocking the Obama administration.
The simmering IRS scandal in particular has thrown the national spotlight back on the Tea Party network, energizing a group that some tried to dismiss after last November’s elections.
“The IRS’s veneer of impartiality is shattered,” said Jenny Beth Martin, a co-founder of Tea Party Patriots. “Tea Party groups have been waiting for years for the IRS to treat us fairly and equally.”
The biggest sign at Thursday’s event that the Tea Party was back on center stage was Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell’s presence at the press conference. It is unlikely the Tea Party could have commanded the participation of Senate leadership just one week ago. But McConnell stood Thursday on the East Front of the U.S. Capitol alongside grassroots activists and Tea Party favorites such as Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, as well as Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn.
The lawmakers and activists demanded answers and investigations over the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups. They called for an independent audit of the IRS and then getting rid of it and replacing the current tax code with a flat tax. The group said the forced resignation of the IRS acting commissioner Steve Miller on Wednesday was not enough, and they echoed the Watergate scandal in demanding to know what the White House knew about the extra IRS scrutiny of conservative groups and when they knew it. (President Barack Obama announced Thursday that Danny Werfel, controller of the Office of Management and Budget and the point man on the “sequestration,” will take over as the new acting IRS commissioner on May 22.)
“Someone needs to be in prison,” said Paul, a potential presidential candidate in 2016.
Both Paul and Bachmann said the controversy raises concerns about the IRS’s large role in the implementation of Obamacare.
“Could there potentially be political implications regarding healthcare, access to healthcare, denial of healthcare?” Bachmann asked. “Will that happen based upon a person’s political beliefs or their religiously held beliefs?”
Jordan Sekulow, the executive director of the American Center for Law and Justice, announced that lawsuits against the IRS by targeted groups could come as soon as next week.
The Treasury Department’s inspector general released findings this week that showed the IRS has spent several years singling out groups with conservative connections. The lawmakers at Thursday’s rally said the IRS used information about people’s religious or political beliefs to deny or delay a request for a certain tax status. The Tea Party leaders at the Capitol claimed that their efforts to gain tax-exempt status faced IRS roadblocks in the form of cumbersome requests such as documentation of recent books read and Facebook postings.
Later Thursday, House Speaker John Boehner, in possibly the strongest comments this week by a lawmaker, said the Obama administration has shown “remarkable arrogance” with the current trio of scandals plaguing the White House: the IRS developments, the aftermath of the Benghazi attacks, and the Justice Department’s monitoring of Associated Press reporters.
“Our system requires the bonds of trust between the American people and their government,” Boehner said. “Nothing dissolves the bonds between the people and their government like the arrogance of power here in Washington. And that’s what the American people are seeing today from the Obama administration.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaking Thursday on MSNBC, said the IRS tactics reflect a “culture of intimidation” fostered by the White House.
While the IRS controversy has centered on the Tea Party, reports of religious groups facing undue IRS scrutiny are beginning to surface. Evangelist Franklin Graham wrote a letter this week to Obama claiming, “Someone in the administration was targeting and attempting to intimidate us.” The IRS, Graham said, had been going after the two ministries he leads, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan’s Purse. Since Graham took action, other faith-based and social conservative groups have come forward.
The National Organization for Marriage said the IRS leaked its tax return documents and confidential donor information to its rival organization, the Human Rights Campaign. The Catholic League argued it was targeted by the IRS while the Leadership Institute, which cultivates conservative leaders, claimed it spent more than $50,000 in legal fees answering an IRS audit that took more than a year and amounted to more than 23,430 pages.
“Fortunately my Leadership Institute had the resources to stand up to the government’s bullying and intimidation,” said Morton Blackwell, president of that organization. “Other groups, including grassroots and Tea Party groups we’ve helped train, did not.”
Family Talk Action Corporation, a Christian ministry led by prominent family advocate James Dobson, claimed it faced unreturned phone calls and other delays by the IRS while seeking 501(c)(4) tax-exempt status. At one point, an IRS reviewing agent said the application wouldn’t get approved because the group sounded like a “partisan right-wing group.” According to Family Talk Action’s account of the events, the IRS agent then said, “You’re political” because you “criticized President Obama, who was a candidate.”
After Family Talk Action threatened litigation, the IRS granted the 501(c)(4) status.
“The American people deserve better treatment from its government than this,” Dobson said in a statement. “Christian ministries and others supporting the family must not be silenced or intimidated by the IRS or other branches of the government.”
Obama denied Thursday having advance knowledge of the actions taken by the IRS, saying it is “simply unacceptable for there to even be a hint of partisanship or ideology when it comes to the application of our tax laws.” But the president rejected requests for an independent audit of the agency.
“I think that it’s going to be sufficient for us to be working with Congress,” Obama said. “They’ve got a whole bunch of committees. We’ve got IGs (inspector generals) already there. The IG has done an audit; it’s now my understanding they’re going to be recommending an investigation. And Attorney General [Eric] Holder also announced a criminal investigation of what happened. Between those investigations, I think we’re going to be able to figure out exactly what happened, who was involved, what went wrong, and we’re going to be able to implement steps to fix it.”
That likely won’t be good enough for congressional Republicans who are calling for a greater probe. Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee asked Thursday that the examination of the IRS include discovering how confidential information given by conservative groups to the IRS ended up in the hands of organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign and ProPublica.
“What Americans want right now are answers about what happened at the IRS, why it wasn’t disclosed earlier, who was ultimately accountable for this behavior,” McConnell said. “Americans, be they conservative or liberal, should be free to participate in the political process without fear of harassment or intimidation from their very own government.”