Northern Virginia tea party groups were apparently victims of the national IRS scandal, a disgrace that ought to infuriate Americans regardless of ideology.
The local groups’ experiences illustrate how irresponsible use of government power can unfairly suppress the kind of grass-roots advocacy our democracy is supposed to encourage.
But even though the two took completely different approaches toward the taxman, both report suffering undue damage at the hands of the agency their members call the Infernal Revenue Service.
The IRS confirmed last month what tea party groups had long been saying: that the agency had targeted groups with “tea party” or “patriot” in their names for extra scrutiny when they applied for tax-exempt status. It turns out quite a few groups in Virginia were affected.
Some, like the Manassas group, struggled through more than two years of delays and bureaucratic hassle to become tax-exempt. Others, like the Fairfax group, passed up potential donations after deciding that such status wasn’t worth the red tape they saw entangling their ideological brethren.
The Manassas Tea Party sought tax-exempt status in May 2010, partly so it could raise money more easily. It wanted to be what’s called a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, to get a tax exemption for itself and so its donors could remain anonymous. (In that IRS category, the donors themselves can’t claim a tax deduction.)
The IRS gave its approval only last January after demanding volumes of paperwork.
“It was without question stifling,” Chairman Dan Arnold said. “We stopped fundraising altogether. We kept our activities at a very low scale. People became less involved, because they weren’t quite sure what kind of organization we were.”
A typical monthly meeting of the Manassas group attracts 30 to 40 people. In the past year, it’s focused mostly on opposing municipal tax increases in Manassas.
Across the county line, the Northern Virginia Tea Party decided against applying for tax-exempt status because of others’ bad experiences.
“We had heard horror stories, and people were being sent onerous things,” lead organizer Ron Wilcox said.
It lost several thousand dollars from potential donors willing to give only to a qualified nonprofit. That meant fewer funds for recruitment and advertising.
Now, I disagree with these groups on close to everything. And the IRS is totally justified in closely scrutinizing tea party groups – or anyone else — to make sure they deserve to be tax-exempt. A 501(c)(4) can’t engage primarily in partisan politics or electioneering.
But the IRS sinned badly by rigging the deck so that conservative groups were more likely to be singled out for questioning. The IRS says it was accidental but concedes it was “absolutely inappropriate.”
“To me, it doesn’t matter whether you’re left, right, center or independent, you do not want the IRS to be used as a political weapon against organizations,” said Larry Nordvig, executive director of the Richmond Tea Party, which says it was targeted.
At least five of more than 40 tea party groups in Virginia reported being subjected to suspiciously aggressive treatment by the IRS. That created a “chilling effect” that discouraged others from seeking tax-exempt benefits.
The Manassas and Richmond tea parties are among 25 organizations nationwide suing the IRS.
It doesn’t seem to have been a big problem in Maryland. That’s partly because the state is more liberal, so it has fewer tea party groups. Also, the dominant group in the movement there is Americans for Prosperity, which obtained its tax-exempt status before the IRS targeting began.
The Richmond Tea Party has released a copy of a letter it received from the IRS asking 55 detailed questions about its activities and seeking a response within two weeks. The Manassas Tea Party hasn’t released such a letter, but Arnold described similar questions.
“The IRS was requiring that we list every volunteer we had, what they worked on, and how many hours,” Arnold said. “We had tons of volunteers working on all kinds of things. Obviously it was intrusive.”
The IRS controversy may offer the tea party a silver lining. Both the Manassas and Richmond groups said the publicity has boosted membership.
A more important silver lining is the reminder of the need for public vigilance to ensure the IRS and similar agencies stay rigorously neutral in politics.
For previous Robert McCartney columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.