WASHINGTON — Rep. Michele Bachmann’s press conference on the IRS nearly turned into a spontaneous, bona fide Tea Party rally Thursday morning.
Bachmann was flanked by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Tea Party favorites Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Mike Lee and activists from all over the country — Ohio, South Carolina, etc. — who had gathered on the East Front of the U.S. Capitol to slam the IRS and, in their words, the Obama administration for targeting Tea Party groups ahead of the 2012 election.
Along the way, the group roped in two other controversies — the Justice Department’s collection of Associated Press phone records and the ongoing Republican inquiry into September’s terror attack in Benghazi — to paint the Obama administration as, at worst, complicit in those events, or, at best, losing control of an overreaching federal government.
“What did the president of the United States know, what did his administration know, what did his counselors know, what did his political operatives know, when did they know it?” Bachmann said after the event. “We don’t have answers to any of those, we haven’t even scratched the surface, we haven’t even begun. This is far worse than Watergate. This isn’t an enemies list, this is direct actions taken against Americans who sought to exercise their free speech rights under the First Amendment.”
Calling for more investigation
The press conference was billed as a response to the IRS disclosures that have electrified conservatives in Washington. Last Friday, the IRS apologized for improperly targeting Tea Party groups that were seeking tax-exempt status, often issuing invasive questionnaires to them and delaying recognition of their organizations. The acting head of the IRS resigned on Wednesday night and members of Congress have promised further investigation.
Bachmann said the actions were troubling for two reasons: First, and most obviously, the federal government was targeting political groups for their beliefs, but she also questioned how far the IRS would go to retaliate against conservatives.
“This is extremely troubling, because the axiom is, the power to tax is the power to destroy,” she said. “Knowing that the IRS will the enforcing mechanism for [the Affordable Care Act], it’s very important to ask: Could there potentially be political implications regarding health care — access to health care, denial of health care — will that happen based upon a person’s political beliefs or their religiously-held beliefs? These questions would have been considered out of bounds a week ago, but today these questions are considered more than reasonable and more than fair for the American people.”
Bachmann tied the actions to the Obama administration, but said Congress needed more information to determine how much President Obama himself knew. Asked if the triple controversies should lead to impeachment — something she said several of her constituents have called for — Bachmann said: “We also don’t want to jump to conclusions, we want to go where the facts lead us. We aren’t interested in creating our own facts.”
Obama has said he knew nothing of the IRS incident until recently. On Wednesday night, he said: “I’ll do everything in my power to make sure nothing like this happens again by holding the responsible parties accountable, by putting in place new checks and new safeguards, and going forward, by making sure that the law is applied as it should be — in a fair and impartial way.”
The press conference drew scores of conservative lawmakers who had come out to support their political base, grassroots small-government conservatives who say their opposition to the Obama administration made them targets.
Though much of the event was about the IRS, it was also a rallying cry for the Tea Party, a movement that has lost some of its influence since hurting Democrats at the polls in 2010. The group highlighted some of its deepest-held grievances against the government, and said the IRS disclosures indicated it’s grown too large to be properly managed.
“To take the abuse of a $3.8 trillion government, the power of that government, and use it to stifle opposition is profoundly un-American,” Sen. Rand Paul said.
Some members offered a handful of conservative solutions: Abolish the IRS, said Diane Belson of the Laurens County Tea Party, and replace the tax code with a flat tax. Jenny Beth Martin of the Tea Party Patriots called for an IRS audit. Bachmann drew cheers when she said the U.S. House would vote today on repealing the Affordable Care Act, which, if successful, would shrink the size of government.
Tea Party groups are also planning a more immediate response. Jordan Sekulow of the conservative American Center for Law and Justice said his group will bring a lawsuit against the IRS on several groups’ behalf as soon as next week.
On Wednesday, Obama seemed to go on the offensive on all three controversies, calling for a federal reporter shield law (after the Associated Press investigation), releasing a string of emails related to post-Benghazi talking points and accepting the acting IRS director’s resignation. But Bachmann said congressional Republicans are just beginning their investigations into the controversies.
“This is the appropriate place to start,” she said. “This is not a 24-hour news cycle story, this is something that we are going to continue to pursue going forward, because again, there is a common thread that runs through all of these stories. It’s abuse of power, potentially, by this administration to advance their political ends.”
Devin Henry can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry