March 1, 2012; Source: Boston Globe (AP)

This could have been predicted—and in fact, we did predict it in our series of articles on the origins, development, and infrastructure of the Tea Party movement. After sidestepping Internal Revenue Service 501(c) tax status issues for some time, many Tea Party organizations and affiliates are filing for 501(c)(4) social welfare organization status. That is the tax exemption form that allows organizations to engage in partisan political activities if those campaign activities constitute less than half of the organization’s programming.

Do you think that partisan political activity is less than half of the purpose and program of national and local organizations identified with the Tea Party movement? Can you think of the social welfare functions that Tea Party groups typically have fulfilled in addition to their campaigning for the likes of Christine O’Donnell in Delaware and Sharron Angle in Nevada?

Neither can we, and probably neither can the Tea Party groups that are bristling with having to produce documentation in response to IRS requests about how and why they qualify for 501(c)(4) status.

Since many Tea Party events have targeted the federal taxman, with “tax day” events being a big part of many local Tea Party mobilizations, having to apply to the IRS for tax-exempt status is probably irksome to many Tea Partiers. The IRS requests for details on the Tea Party groups has been labeled “intimidation” by Tom Zawistowski, the president of the Ohio Liberty Council, a network of Tea Party organizations in the Buckeye State. He characterizes the IRS’ vantage point this way: “Stop doing what you’re doing, or we’ll make your life miserable.” Likewise, Eric Wilson of the Kentucky 9/12 Project described the IRS requests as a “modern-day witch hunt.”

Some are trying to pivot and suggest that they aren’t engaging in campaign activities for individual candidates, but simply expressing opinions about political issues. That doesn’t wash.  It is hard to imagine any Tea Party operation whose primary activity isn’t about electoral politics—to endorse, campaign for, and elect candidates who stand for the Tea Party values of small, smaller, and nonexistent government.  

As much as the 501(c)(4) social welfare organization status is one which is more misused than any in the 501(c) taxonomy, the Tea Party organizations probably have a harder road to hoe than others in making their case that politically partisan campaign activity isn’t their primary purposes. Contrary to their charges, these IRS inquiries are not politically partisan. Rather, it’s just a matter of IRS bureaucrats scratching their heads, trying to ascertain what Tea Party groups do that isn’t politically partisan.—Rick Cohen