Tea party groups across the country from Pennsylvania to Texas say they've spent thousands of hours over the past couple of years trying to comply with IRS requests to receive tax-exempt status.
"We felt intimidated by the government," said Bob Smith of the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party, a small group in Texas. "We're a pimple on the back of a dog," he added
That was before the scandal broke.
Revelations that the IRS targeted tea party groups applying for tax-exempt status have vindicated the groups, many of whom have been alleging unfair treatment long before the tax agency's belated admission last Friday.
Smith joined nine other tea party organizers this week at the conservative nonprofit FreedomWorks to share details of the IRS dragnet that targeted tea party groups and set off a national political and media firestorm. Organizers say they're focused on their legal options, but as significant is their sense of vindication.
"I think this creates a perfect storm because you have a tangible, visceral demonstration of what we've been talking about all along—that big government leads to an abuse of power and that anybody can get trampled," said FreedomWorks President Matt Kibbe in an interview.
The organizers who spoke Thursday at FreedomWorks painted a picture of an onerous process that included delayed responses from the IRS and, in some cases, questionnaires with more than 100 queries.
"If we had replied with everything, we would have needed a U-Haul truck of about 20 feet to get it all there," said Toby Marie Walker of the Waco Tea Party, whose group applied in July 2010 for tax-exempt status and received it this year.
While the activists said the IRS's admission validates their worries about government, their tax-exempt status has still not been resolved in some cases.
Jay Devereaux of Unite in Action, a Tennessee tea party group, became emotional when he spoke about applying for tax-exempt status. He filed with the IRS for his group in March of 2010 and has not been cleared yet. In January 2012, he received a letter from the IRS seeking his donors' names. Instead of complying, he posted the letter on his group's website, he said, which hurt contributions. Donors don't want to give to groups perceived to be in trouble with the IRS.
"Being in limbo all but killed us. People are very leery about giving us money," he said.
Under the law, 501 (c)(4) groups do not have to disclose their donors, and their primary focus has to be social welfare. His organization rented the Omni-Shoreham Hotel in 2010 and held 78 classes on how to engage government. Devereaux said the IRS wanted copies of all the curriculum and resumes from all the instructors.
The scandal has put the Obama administration in damage control mode. The White House fired acting commissioner Steven Miller, is set to appoint Daniel Werfel as acting commissioner, and the Justice Department is launching an investigation into the malfeasance, which the agency admitted to last week and an inspector general's report detailed this week.
The stakes are high for President Obama, whose second-term agenda has been derailed by the IRS scandal, allegations of passivity during the lethal Benghazi attacks and the controversy surrounding the Justice Department's seizure of Associated Press phone records. Tea party activists recognize the IRS scandal could forge a midterm election victory in 2014 that mirrors the 2010 tea party wave.
"I think you're gonna see a second wave," Walker said. "I think '14 might be like '10, but different because we don't want to send people up here who are going to go along to get along. We want people to fight for the American people, not the good old boys."
Kibbe agreed that the scandal, coupled with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which conservatives are betting Americans won't like, could help the tea party movement pick up seats. But activists said the biggest problem facing the movement in 2014 is organization.
Compared to the Obama campaign in 2012 and 2008, the tea party movement is still an offshoot of the conservative movement and tends to vote for Republicans.
"For me the Achilles' heel for this decentralized movement has always been a lack of leadership," Kibbe said.
As for how that could change for the movement, it may be too early to tell.
"We're still in the middle of the storm," Walker said.