The House Ways and Means committee heard a shared sense of frustration today from incredulous representatives of several organizations whose applications were delayed by the Internal Revenue Service, fueling the kind of congressional wrath on display this week during a slew of hearings examining the agency's decision to apply excessive scrutiny to conservative political groups looking for tax-exempt status.
"The types of questions asked by the IRS included asking me to identify the political affiliation of my mentors and that I advise the IRS of my political position on virtually every issue of importance to me," Kevin Kookogey, the founder and president of Linchpins of Liberty, testified.
"They wanted to know how much time or resources were devoted to vetting candidates," Dianne Belsom of the Laurens County Tea Party in South Carolina said.
"Please provide the percentage of your organization that spends on prayer groups as compared with the other activities of the organization," Sue Martinek of the Coalition for Life of Iowa said the IRS asked when she applied for 501(c)3 tax-exempt status.
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Their stories have become commonplace on Capitol Hill in the wake of the investigator general's audit detailing the agency's targeting of conservative groups. Throughout the hearing, each witness expressed disbelief at the actions taken by the IRS.
"When I received those questions, I felt defensive for one thing because I felt like that wasn't any of their business," Becky Gerritson of the Wetumpka Tea Party in Georgia said. "I wasn't going to identify my volunteers. I was fearful for them. If their name was going to the IRS, I know they would be scared. The questions were chilling."
Martinek of the Coalition for Life of Iowa said, "I was just overwhelmed by the sheer level of minute detail that was being requested. It just makes me very nervous."
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While Republicans and Democrats agreed that the targeting was inappropriate, Rep. Earl Blumenauer took issue with the notion that each targeted group applying for tax-exempt status was "engaged in promoting the common good and general welfare," a requirement for the tax break.
"Having organizations parading as being social welfare organizations and then being involved in the political combat harkens back to why the statute a hundred years ago said that they were prohibited," Blumenauer, D-Ore., said, directing his comments toward the National Organization for Marriage.
"Let's stop this charade of pretending that these are social welfare organizations and admit that they are political, treat them as such, and play by the same rules that everybody on the committee plays for when we're involved in politics."
John Eastman, the chairman of the National Organization for Marriage, then responded, unprompted, to the "scurrilous" remarks of the congressman.
"Rep. Blumenauer, it's your kind of statements that have empowered IRS agents to make determinations about which organizations qualify for the public good and which do not," Eastman boomed as Blumenauer listened silently. "The notion that defending traditional marriage doesn't qualify as a defense of the public good is preposterous."
Eastman testified that confidential portions of his organization's tax returns, including lists of major donors and their home addresses that appeared on the website of the Human Rights Campaign, were leaked by the IRS, a potential felony. He raised the issue with the IRS, but says no action has been taken to determine who was responsible for leaking the confidential records.
"We jealously guard our donors as almost every other nonprofit does, particularly on the issues that we deal with which are so contentious that our donors, once they are identified, are harassed and intimidated and tried to be chilled away from supporting the cause that we advance," Eastman said. "This is unacceptable conduct in our democracy."
Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., the chairman of the Ways and Means committee, pledged to continue investigating the controversy until safeguards are implemented to prevent future targeting.
"While we might not know why this happened," he said, "please be assured that learning firsthand from you about how the IRS used the tax code to intimidate and harass you will help us take the steps necessary to make sure this never happens again."