Of the 298 organizations singled out by the IRS for additional review in the period during which it used triggers like "Tea Party" and "Patriots" to flag groups for additional scrutiny, only 96 employed those triggers. Representatives of a handful of them appeared before the House Ways and Means Committee today at Congress' fifth hearing on the scandal, offering anecdotes and quotes more than insight into the IRS' behavior. This is where the investigation is: If you've got an interpretation of how the IRS acted badly, the president's opponents are all ears.
The committee heard from six witnesses: Dr. John Eastman (National Organization for Marriage), Diane Belsom (Laurens County Tea Party), Becky Gerritson (Wetumpka Tea Party), Karen Kenney (San Fernando Valley Patriots), Kevin Kookogey (Linchpins of Liberty), and Sue Martinek (Coalition for Life of Iowa).
While not all of them represented organizations directly targeted by the IRS's review process, each shared examples of IRS impingement — and a broadly conservative political philosophy. Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon noted that the committee could have called progressive groups similarly affected, but didn't. Chairman Dave Camp suggested it was because the Democrats couldn't provide one affected by the IRS.
Many of the witnesses who were heard weren't new to the public eye. Belsom appeared previously on CNN, discussing the same issues. Three of the witnesses (Eastman, Gerritson, and Kookogey) previously appeared on Fox News, which both previewed and covered the hearing today. But the breakout star was Kenney. In her opening statement, she outlined what she considered was at stake.
Later, she continued:
I think the IRS needs to fix its labeling machine: We’re the San Fernando Valley Patriots, not Occupy Oakland.
I stopped the costly and exhausting IRS process in July 2012. We survive on my credit card and donations in our cake tin. Like patriots before us, we persevere.
The voice of this Republic resides in our citizens, not in the tongue of government. More must grasp that self-evident truth.
This dialogue is about the jackboot of tyranny upon the field of our Founding documents. To whisper the letters I-R-S strikes a shrill note on Main St., USA, but when this behemoth tramples upon America’s grassroots, few hear the snapping sounds.
There's value in understanding the effect that the IRS' actions had on the organizations that weren't able to get the tax status they sought. Kenney had some serious rhetoric. How much she told us about the IRS is debatable.
The Republicans on the committee were impressed. "The testimony has been breathtaking," said Rep. Pat Tiberi of Ohio. Rep. Tom Price of Georgia called Eastman's testimony, "absolutely chilling."
Eastman's testimony, it's worth noting, focused on a separate IRS issue. The National Organization for Marriage plans to sue the agency for apparently leaking confidential donor lists to The Huffington Post. This prompted Eastman to note that, after the fight over Proposition 8 in California, donors to the campaign faced public harassment. Eastman worried that the recent leak would scare donors, that it might "keep them from donating again to the political fight that we're in the middle of."
Which at its heart is the problem. The IRS' efforts to filter Tea Party groups appears largely to have been a shorthand for flagging groups that were likely engaging in undue political activity. Rep. Ron Kind of Wisconsin asked the witnesses if they understood where the line was drawn on what political activity was allowed; no one asked provided such an understanding. Eastman's comment suggests that the line is blurry for all parties (though he later noted that NOM establishes PACs to conduct direct political action.)
The problem with today's hearing was summed up by testimony from Kookogey. After references to Cicero, Augustine, and de Tocqueville in his opening statement, he told a story that he later returned to several times.
[C]ontrary to the statements of Lois Lerner, the targeting of Linchpins of Liberty was not merely the independent act of a few agents in Cincinnati. … When I inquired of [agent Ron Bell] as to why my application was taking so long, he said, "We have been waiting on guidance from our superiors." … While he did not indicate from where this "guidance" was coming, it was clearly implied that it was not down the hall.
Linchpins of Liberty was asked probing, ineffective questions about its behavior, as cited in the independent IRS report. It shouldn't have happened. But Kookogey's vague link between that behavior and Washington demonstrates why anecdotal evidence is of questionable value: It's often biased and it is almost certainly not representative. It can, however, have great political value — and today's testimony will be summarized and used to make political points.
Incidentally, if you have an anecdote of your own to share, the Ways and Means Committee is still collecting them at its a website. How those anecdotes are used is to be determined — and very likely depends on their content.
Photo: House members listen to testimony. (AP)