Tea party activists descended on Washington today, promising to sue the Internal Revenue Service and claiming vindication in their long-held complaints about perceived government overreach.
At a news conference on Capitol Hill this morning, activists joined Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., to lambaste the federal government for targeting them with extra scrutiny as they applied for tax-exempt status as public-advocacy groups.
Tea partiers say the lengthy questionnaires, some of them 30 questions long, cost them hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars as they sent stacks of paperwork to the IRS and were held in legal limbo for years, uncertain of what activities they could pursue, and cut off from skeptical donors scared away by their pending status.
"This is not only unconstitutional, it is illegal," said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative civil-rights group that says it is suing the IRS on behalf of 17 clients who were targeted for extra scrutiny because of their groups' leanings.
The IRS has admitted to targeting groups with the words "Tea Party" and "patriots" in their names, but documents obtained by ABC News reveal that the IRS targeted other groups with conservative leanings from 2010 to 2012.
The American Center for Law and Justice represents 27 tea party groups that received questionnaires from the IRS asking for information on their donors, members, finances, educational materials, events and, in at least one case, connections to another group and another individual. Sekulow said 17 of his clients are prepared to move ahead with a civil lawsuit against the IRS.
"This is extremely troubling because the axiom is: The power to tax is the power to destroy," Bachmann said at the news conference, held outside the Capitol.
"These horror stories of the government attempting to quiet the voices of critics is apparently rather rampant," added Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
After the news conference, activists met with Senate staff in the Capitol basement, according to a McConnell spokesman.
Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky also joined the activists and lawmakers, lambasting the IRS for targeting conservative.
"This is a civil rights issue," said Adam Brandon of Washington-based FreedomWorks, which has facilitated organizing and communication between local and state-level tea party groups since 2009. "It's more like a Third World junta than a constitutional republic."
Later this afternoon, Brandon's group hosted nine activists at FreedomWorks headquarters on Capitol Hill to speak with reporters. Of the activists who attended, six are represented by the American Center for Law and Justice and plan to sue the IRS.
Some of the groups attained 501(c)4 tax-exempt status last year, some this year, and some said they have yet to receive a ruling from the IRS.
"We would have needed a U-Haul truck of about 20 feet to get it back to the IRS in Cincinnati," said Toby Marie Walker of the Waco Tea Party, speculating at how much paperwork it would have taken to satisfy all the IRS' requests.
"It's a month away from being three years [since her group requested tax-exempt status], and there is no resolution to this situation," said Dianne Belsom of the Laurens County Tea Party in South Carolina.