A Cardboard Cutout of a Caucus

by James V. DeLong
Congressmen who support tea-party values should form a new caucus. The old one should disband.

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.

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.

This means, according to the IRS, that “an organization must operate primarily to further the common good and general welfare of the people of the community (such as by bringing about civic betterment and social improvements).” This definition is meant to exclude organizations devoted to the welfare of a small group or created as a tax dodge for their founders, not to keep the organizations free of political taint.

Both progressives and conservatives create tax-exempt, issue-oriented foundations (to which contributions are tax-deductible) under section 501(c)(3). The foundations do not engage in political activity but can be paired with 501(c)(4)s, which do engage in political activity and to which contributions are not tax-deductible. The NRA and the Sierra Club, for example, both have 501(c)(4)s.

It is plausible to conclude that the administration adopted a successful program of using the IRS to suppress conservative votes while encouraging its own allies — unions, public employees, progressive 501(c)(4)s, etc. The administration may in fact have stolen an election. The House, which could have stopped the abuse, was crippled by the hibernation of its most likely instrument, the Tea Party Caucus.

Theories about the reasons for the failure are easy to find. The simplest is that Bachmann is a bad manager. Preoccupied with her presidential campaign and under fire for her tea-party connections, she found her position as chair of the CTPC inconvenient, and so she neglected it. Then, because the Hill is a hive where the whims of a member outweigh the needs of outsiders, including the nation, no one was so rude as to object that the organization had been neutered at a crucial time.

One can add some conspiracy theories. Blogger Ann Althouse asks: Why didn’t Romney root out these scandals before the last election? Why didn’t the Republicans? One hypothesis:

Obama’s prime target was the Tea Party (which had crushed him in the 2010 midterms), and the establishment Republicans were at odds with the Tea Party movement. I’m not saying I believe this, but sober reflection tells us we need to redraw the line between paranoia and vigilance. The theory is that establishment Republicans appreciated the suppression of the Tea Party.  

I have no trouble believing that establishment Republicans were not upset by the attack on the tea parties. After all, I live in Washington, D.C., where the air is thick with demonization. The CTPC’s members may be happy for the organization to remain a secret society. They can whisper to their constituents that they belong, and then avoid having to take the heat for it in Georgetown.

The demonization of the tea parties has had an impact. In January 2013, to the great delight of the MSM, Rasmussen reported that only 8 percent of voters called themselves members of the Tea Party, down from 24 percent in 2010; 49 percent had an unfavorable view of it, 30 percent favorable.

But not so fast. The glass is also half full, and the current scandals have boosted the Tea Party’s fortunes. Despite three years of unrelenting, vicious attacks, it now has the approval of 40 percent of the voters, with 17 percent undecided, in an ABC–Washington Post poll released earlier this month. In an NBC–Wall Street Journal poll in January, only 26 percent of voters approved of the Republican party. More recently, only 22 percent approved of the Republican leadership in Congress; 68 percent disapproved. Who is dragging down whom?

The existing CTPC should disband. A cadre of tea-party defenders on Capitol Hill is needed now, and members of Congress should not defer to each other’s whims in this matter. Members who believe in tea-party values, and who are willing to say so, should form a new caucus. And then the movement can advance. Support from 40 percent of voters even after years of attacks is a good base to start from.

— James V. DeLong is the author of Ending Big SIS (The Special Interest State) and Renewing the American Republic. A tea-party activist, he blogs at Conservatives4Palin