On Nov. 5, 2009, at the behest of Rep. Michele Bachmann, thousands of tea party activists descended on the Capitol to vent their rage over the health care overhaul bill pending before Congress.
The assembled activists chanted, "Kill the bill! Kill the bill!" and waved signs opposing a government takeover of health care — but they may not have known that the same government was paying for the event.
According to House expense reports, Bachmann and three conservative GOP colleagues — Reps. Tom Price (Ga.), Steve King (Iowa) and Todd Akin (Mo.) — each paid $3,407.50 that day, a total of $13,630, to a sound and stage company called National Events, apparently for the sound system used at the rally.
The money came from the Members' taxpayer-funded office accounts, despite House rules prohibiting the use of these funds for political activities. Bachmann's office insists the expense was a proper use of official funds.
Bachmann billed the event as a "press conference," which can be funded from official accounts. But no questions were taken from the press and, unlike most press conferences, it opened with a prayer, the national anthem and a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.
A few days earlier, the Minnesota Republican had appeared on a Fox News talk show and made an appeal for activists to come to D.C. for the event, promising to help them lobby Congress against the bill.
"I'm asking people to come to Washington, D.C., by the carload," Bachmann said. "I'd love to have every one of your viewers join me so that we can go up and down through the halls. Find Members of Congress, look at the whites of their eyes and say, 'Don't take away my health care.'"
House rules prohibit the use of official resources for political purposes, but the definition of what is political is murky. The House Ethics Manual notes that "no specific definition of bona fide campaign or political purposes exists in the rules" and that "Members often have discretion in determining whether an event will be 'political' or 'official.'"
The ethics watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a complaint with the Office of Congressional Ethics at the time, claiming Bachmann had violated a clearer directive from the House Administration Committee that Member websites "may not include grassroots lobbying or solicit support for a Member's position." Bachmann had posted a release on her site announcing the event. The ethics office apparently investigated the complaint and dropped it.
CREW did not request an investigation of the rental of the sound system; Executive Director Melanie Sloan said her group did not know that Bachmann and the other lawmakers had used their office accounts to pay for it.
"The reality is that this was a grass-roots rally and this was political," Sloan said. "That would be an improper political expenditure."
King told Roll Call that the rally has "already been through ethics. ... I dealt with that and it's been put away."