Archive for the ‘Congress Watch Column’ Category

IRS Commissioner John Koskinen’s appearance in front of the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday was a missed opportunity to advance an important discussion about nonprofit governance. Members of the committee from both parties chose to create a political spectacle rather than talk about real solutions for problems with the definition of political activity for tax-exempt organizations.

Republicans proceeded as though the hearing was a genuine impeachment hearing, while denying Commissioner Koskinen any kind of due process –including the rights to have counsel present and to call and cross-examine witnesses.

John Koskinen

IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, courtesy of Brookings Institution/Flickr

On the other side of the aisle, many Democrats chose to question the Commissioner about Donald Trump’s unreleased tax returns and the Donald J. Trump Foundation’s alleged self-dealing. Some Democrats did defend the Commissioner and labeled the proceeding a “sham” and a “farce.”  Even though Koskinen made it evident early in the hearing that he could not comment on particular taxpayer situations, a number of Democrats asked again and again about thinly veiled hypotheticals relating to Trump’s tax situation.

It is understandable that Democrats would not ask Koskinen questions related to the impeachment attempt by the House Freedom Caucus, given that the impeachment is doomed to fail and is merely designed to make headlines. Democrats could have used the opportunity to show the American public that they are serious about creating clearer rules for tax-exempt organizations rather than respond to a political attack with a political attack of their own.

In fact, members of both parties could have used this as a chance to confront the dysfunction and disunity that has plagued Congress. Instead of asking the Commissioner questions he has already answered and accusing the Commissioner of nefarious acts of which the Treasury Department’s independent Inspector General and the Department of Justice have cleared him, members should have asked substantive questions on topics that can move the government forward.

For example, members of the committee could have used the opportunity to ask Koskinen about the negative effects that the current vague rules have on nonprofits – especially 501(c)(3) organizations. They could have asked about the effects of the Congressional prohibition on the IRS’s ability to engage in rulemaking activities for 501(c)(4)s. Or, they could have asked about how to improve the current tax regime for non-profit organizations moving forward.

Without clearer rules to define political activity, risk averse 501(c)(3)s will be forced to refrain from civic activities that should be permissible because they do not want to jeopardize their tax-exempt status. In addition, bad rules cloud the waters when it comes to responding to an attack on an organization’s core mission. When someone close to a political candidate compares refugees to skittles, how can a refugee-focused 501(c)(3) respond without violating the (c)(3) ban on political activity? There are nonpartisan ways to respond, but because the rules are so unclear, most would choose to remain silent rather than take any risk they could accidentally stray over the line.

The time has come to stop using the IRS to further partisan political goals and instead acknowledge the important nonpartisan role it plays in governing tax-exempt organizations and the critical responsibility it has in maintaining American democracy.

This Labor Day, I’ll be thinking about my family.

My great grandfather, an immigrant from eastern Europe who crossed the Atlantic to work in a western Pennsylvania steel mill, died in that mill in 1929 when a piece of industrial equipment came crashing down on him.

His daughter – my grandmother – was less than a year old.

How many millions of families have suffered similar tragedies? The deadly nature of work in the “Steel Valley” is well documented. Local histories and literary classics such as Blood on the Forge and Out of This Furnace testify to this bloody past.

Clearly, we’ve come a long way since 1929, most significantly with the formation of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) in 1971.

Nevertheless, tragic workplace deaths occur in America almost every day. Scroll through OSHA’s 2014 document recording “FY14 Fatalities and Catastrophes to Date” (PDF), and you’ll begin to get a sense of the lives lost each day that may have been prevented.

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As a general rule, cost-benefit analyses are suspect.

Such analyses – which federal agencies perform to weigh the health and safety “benefits” of regulations (benefits like lower infant mortality rates and reliably safe and clean drinking water) against the “cost” of lost profits to Corporate America – result in a distorted model of a regulation’s impact. Invariably, the distortion creates a bias that exaggerates the regulation’s “cost,” largely because cost (measured in dollars and cents) is more easily quantified than benefits.

So one might think it’s a good thing that economists at the FDA have started factoring in pleasure – or, more specifically, its loss – when weighing the costs and benefits of new regulations. And one might think that a regulation that is expected to result in lower infant mortality rates, fewer cancer diagnoses, and longer, healthier lives for the American public to be a winner in terms of “pleasure,” right?

Unfortunately, one would be wrong.

Shockingly, the FDA’s cost-benefit analysis for a new tobacco regulation resulted in the rule’s projected health and safety benefits – fewer instances of heart and lung disease and fewer early deaths – being reduced by 70 percent due to the “loss in pleasure” smokers endure when trying to break their addiction.

As an ex-smoker myself (tobacco-free since 2008), I am well aware that the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal certainly constitute a “loss in pleasure.” But the notion that a smoker’s physical discomfort for a relatively brief period of time somehow trumps by 70 percent the health benefits of quitting (not to mention the increase in one’s disposable income and the gradual restoration of one’s senses of taste and smell) is utterly outrageous.

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Last week, we hosted an online conversation with Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, and Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division.

Robert and Lisa discussed the progress we’ve made together so far — and the next steps we need to take — on some of the most pressing issues facing the country.

Miss the webinar? Catch up by watching the video below:

(Note: Unfortunately because of network issues beyond our control, you can’t see Robert or Lisa for most of the presentation. But the audio is there, and the analysis and insights they provide are inspiring and thought-provoking).

Some of our highest priorities include ending corporate money’s domination of our elections, fighting for universal health care, reining in Big Bank recklessness and stopping congressional attacks on consumer protection.

Members of Congress — Democrats, Republicans and independents alike — must hear from We the People that these issues matter to us.

We’re going on the offensive this summer, and we need your help.

To make sure you’re invited to our live online discussion in July, sign up today.

Rick Claypool is the online director for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division.

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A joint op-ed by Public Citizen’s Lisa Gilbert with libertarian Cato Institute’s Mark Calabria was published recently in USA Today.

The unlikely pair – considering Public Citizen’s progressive perspective and Cato’s libertarian stance – call Attorney General Eric Holder to task for the Department of Justice’s timid treatment of criminal banks.

Acknowledging the Credit-Suisse guilty plea that Justice recently obtained, Gilbert and Calabria write, “we certainly applaud the DOJ’s action, a criminal guilty plea from a foreign bank doesn’t erase the many non-prosecutions and deferred prosecutions of the too-big-to-fail banks at the heart of the financial crisis.”

Advocates and activists on the left and right demand action. What can Justice do to start restoring faith in a system that imprisons low-income lawbreakers but allows Wall Street’s worst to walk free?

Gilbert and Calabria offer a next step:

Crimes require the action of individuals. The DOJ has yet to articulate why proceeding with criminal prosecution against individuals would undermine the safety of the institutions at which they work or the broader economy.

We are not advocating criminalizing irresponsible behavior after the fact or abandoning due process protections. We are advocating a justice system that treats all equally, regardless of size or importance to the broader economy.


Holder wants to be “very, very, very, very clear,” that no bank that commits crimes is too big to jail. To ensure that clarity, we should enhance transparency on the process.

Read the full USA Today op-ed here.

Rick Claypool is the online director for Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division.

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