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A Cardboard Cutout of a Caucus
Congressmen who support tea-party values should form a new caucus. The old one should disband.

Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R., Minn.) speaks at a press conference on May 16.

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The IRS’s targeting of conservative groups raises many questions.

Mine is: “Where the heck was the Congressional Tea Party Caucus while this was going on?”

The answer is: “Nowhere.” And the obvious conclusion is that the present CTPC should disband and clear the field for others.

The CTPC was formed in July 2010, with Michele Bachmann as the spark plug and chair. Some tea-party activists were suspicious, fearing that the caucus represented an effort to ride the coattails of the tea-party movement, or maybe to co-opt it rather than help it, and they turned out to be right.

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The caucus issued fewer than a dozen press releases between its founding and July 2012, after which updates became even rarer. Its website has little content and does not even list current members. To find out who belonged in the past, you must go to Wikipedia, which has a comprehensive list of past members, apparently compiled from a page no longer available at the CTPC website. The progressive media have been gloating over the demise of the Tea Party Caucus.

Earlier this year, Representative Mick Mulvaney (R., S.C.) filed papers with the House to start a tea-party caucus. This triggered activity by the existing group, which promised a rejuvenation and received a flurry of press coverage about a meeting to take place on April 26. Mulvaney then withdrew his papers, explaining that he had been unsure whether Bachmann planned to continue the group.

Press coverage ended abruptly after April 26, because the meeting produced no news and no membership list. The website remains vacuous. The only significant recent update has been a press release by Chair Bachmann announcing that she “and 63 of her House colleagues” have signed a letter “requesting that the IRS refrain from these abusive tactics.” (“Take that, you bounders; if you persist, we will speak sternly!”) The letter does not represent itself as having anything to do with the CTPC, however, and Bachmann is not identified as the CTPC chair. From one perspective, this tale is typical congressional comedy. A few congressional caucuses are powerful, such as the Black Caucus, and a few are active and effective for particular causes, such as the Medical Technology Caucus, but most are phony, created solely to pad the résumés of their members.  

From another angle, though, laughter is not in order. The Tea Party is an important political movement. It is under attack for its radical beliefs in individual responsibility, budget parsimony, and the rule of law, all of which are threats to Washington’s political class of both parties. It needs support and protection on Capitol Hill; it should not be used as a prop brought out only when members need it for photo shoots, like the cardboard cutouts of political figures used for tourist photos in Washington.

As the IRS revelations grow more appalling, the torpor of the CTPC becomes more baffling. As early as 2010, Democratic senator Max Baucus urged the IRS to investigate 501(c)(4)s, and in February 2012 seven more senators wrote the IRS. Both referenced conservative groups, though not specifically the tea parties.

For the past two years, though, tea-party stories from the grassroots have been accumulating. In 2012, IRS officials went before congressional committees and lied. CTPC did nothing.

All of this mattered. One of the stories of the 2012 election was the superior ground game of the Democrats, whose voters turned out while many Republican sympathizers stayed home. And who were these Republican absentees, by most accounts? They were working-class people and small-business owners, the demographic groups most in tune with the tea parties. These voters could have been reached by the education efforts of the 501(c)(4) organizations that the IRS was aborting.

The argument that 501(c)(4)s are not supposed to be political is untrue. In fact, contributions to 501(c)(4)s are not even tax-deductible. (The congressmen at the hearings on the IRS scandal do not seem to know this, which is horrifying.) The rule is simply that 501(c)(4)s must be social-welfare organizations.



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