Tea Party Groups Awaken From Holiday Slumber to Fight IRS Rules

(AP Photo)

After getting off to a slow start, conservative tea party groups are pushing back on the Internal Revenue Service's new proposal to regulate tax-exempt groups.

It's the latest chapter of a saga over the targeting of conservative groups throughout the 2012 election that exploded over the summer of 2013. And it comes nearly a month and a half after the IRS first revealed its proposed rules in late November.

The IRS's Thanksgiving-week announcement of new rules to rein in tax-exempt groups that participate in political activities caught many by surprise - especially conservative groups.

Most of Washington left town for the holiday season as the clock ticked on the roughly 90-day window for public comment on the proposed rules.

"They seem hell bent to do whatever they're setting out to do because of the way they issued the rules and the fact that the comment period happens during the holiday season," said Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks.

"I think changing the rules in an election year is extraordinarily unfair and unprecedented," he added.

Kibbe's organization over the weekend urged its members and affiliates, which include tea party groups across the country, to submit comments opposing the proposed rules.

The comments would be considered by the IRS in crafting, or abandoning the final regulations.

The response was impressive, more than 10,000 people responded to the plea within 24 hours, Kibbe said. And as of Monday, more than 3,000 comments had been submitted.

On Monday, another tea party group, ForAmerica, launched its own push to oppose the IRS rules. Initially, it seemed that the two groups had launched an orchestrated rollout, but Kibbe said they didn't coordinate with ForAmerica on the effort.

"The holiday season prevented what would typically have been a more coordinated response," he noted.

ForAmerica has put six-figures behind its social media and digital ad effort, the group said.

Months after the IRS scandal first erupted, several other issues, and a largely fruitless congressional investigation by Republican lawmakers, has caused the issue to fade from prominence.

Tea party activists are still plenty angry at the IRS. But they are now forced to build public outrage in a very brief window of opportunity and at a time when the midterm elections are quickly heating up. And when the missteps by the Obama administration in implementing the health care law seems - at the moment - to be a more promising line of attack in the 2014 elections.

Yet Kibbe believes that if the IRS rules are allowed to go into effect, it could hamper the efforts of tea party groups seeking to operate in this cycle.

"I think it has to be about public opinion," Kibbe said. "On any promulgation of regulations, it's a very insider, complex, closed process by any definition."

"We need to get people to pay attention to this in a very short period of time," he said.

IRS officials say that they are proposing new rules to reduce or eliminate the guesswork that led some agency employees to unnecessarily stymie groups applying for tax-exempt status based on concerns that their political activity might exceed the legal limits for 501c(4) groups.

Among the rules are that a group's primary activities cannot include voter registration drives, events with candidates that occur within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election.

Tea party groups believe the rules would do more to hurt small, "mom and pop" 501(c)4 groups, rather than the big players like Republican operative Karl Rove's group, Crossroads GPS, which spent tens of millions of dollars in the 2010 election.

But others say the rules are finally establishing some basic guidance in a wild wild west of campaign finance uncertainty.

"The truth of the matter is that the current rules are a morass and many nonprofits are using that to their advantage," said Ken Gross, an election lawyer and former associate general counsel of the Federal Election Commission.

"Anything that would add clarity that would make the laws more enforceable I think end up being something that the groups oppose because they have used the current morass of laws to their benefit," he said.