By Luana Wang

If you’ve been following the IRS rulemaking on 501(c)(4) social welfare nonprofit political activity (and really, who hasn’t?), then you know that IRS Commissioner John Koskinen’s latest testimony in front of the Senate Finance Committee was one for the ages. Ranked among his previous thirty-something testimonies in front of legislative bodies, it rates somewhere above the time Commissioner Koskinen had to explain that the IRS actually does read the tax returns you send in.

Two years ago, the IRS announced a notice of proposed rulemaking which would clarify the rules on political activity for social welfare organizations under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code. Although the proposed rule was a step forward from the confusing “facts and circumstances” standard currently being used, the IRS withdrew the proposed rule for further revision after it received much criticism from both sides of the aisle.

This time, Commissioner Koskinen’s testimony contained hope for a new rulemaking, and a peek into the IRS’s evaluation of the more than 160,000 comments that the previous rulemaking received. Before we examine that evaluation, let’s also take a quick moment to recognize the comments that didn’t make it into the IRS Commissioner’s summary, and the beleaguered IRS officials who had to read each and every one of them anyway. Many of the comments submitted to the IRS were thoughtful, sincere, and legitimate criticisms of the proposed rule, from commenters across the political spectrum. However, some comments seemed to have little to do with the proposed rule, or really, anything at all.

Here are some highlights:

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It’s that time of year again — Washington has turned its focus to the threat of national default and how to fund the government. This year’s cocktail has had the additional flavors of a contested U.S. House Speaker’s race and a presidential race to spice things up, and has resulted in an actual budgetary framework for the first time in several years.

The problem now is that members of Congress are attempting to add deal sweeteners for corporate lobbyists into the final budgetary mixture. These so-called “policy riders” are legislative provisions addressing extraneous policy issues that have little or nothing to do with funding our government. They get slipped into must-pass funding bills because lawmakers hope the public won’t notice their bitter taste. These riders are generally ideological measures that the public opposes and the president would veto as standalone legislation.

Most of the attention has focused on one particularly heinous poison pill — the effort to defund Planned Parenthood — which would threaten healthcare for millions of women. Congressional Republicans have threatened to shut down the government to force us to swallow this one. But there are hundreds of other toxic ideological riders that have been added to the budget. These riders would block efforts to stop Wall Street abuses, ensure safe and healthy food and products, provide clean air and water, keep workplaces safe, prevent consumer rip-offs and corporate wrongdoing, and ensure continued access to vital healthcare services across the board.

One example is a rider that would prohibit the U.S. Department of Labor from finalizing or enforcing a rule that would ensure Americans get sound financial advice on their retirement savings. Another rider would block the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration from finalizing a rule to protect workers from toxic silica dust; this rule has been more than a decade in the making about would save 700 lives a year.

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The New York Times has published a devastating three-part exposé by reporters Jessica Silver-Greenberg, Robert Gebeloff and Michael Corkery showing the gory details of how corporations use the fine print of take-it-or-leave-it terms to deny consumer rights.

These forced arbitration clauses block ripped-off consumers from holding corporations accountable in a court. Instead, consumers are routed into the rigged system of private arbitration, where decisions are in the hands of corporations’ handpicked arbitrators instead of impartial judges. These arbitrators, who depend on the corporations who set these terms for repeat business, have every incentive to rule against consumers. Their rulings are final – they are not required to allow appeals. Appallingly, there is no public record of these decisions, and they do not have follow precedent or the law.

Even worse, forced arbitration clauses buried in the fine print increasingly ban class-action lawsuits. This makes these terms a “get out of jail free card” for corporations with large numbers of customers, who can get away with small-dollar rip-offs. Customers of a company that uses a forced arbitration clause to ban class actions have no means for collective action against unfair charges.

Take action today: Tell Congress to ban forced arbitration.

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Photo by paigeh via flickr

Photo by paigeh via flickr

A budget deal has been cut, but the fight isn’t over. The public is still at risk.

Lawmakers still must work on individual appropriations bills, which will have to fit within the framework agreed upon this week. During that appropriations process, corporate-backed lawmakers will try to attach to the bills ideological policy riders that they couldn’t get passed otherwise. We’re talking about policies that deny women access to the health care provider of their choice; block safeguards that protect our homes, pocketbooks and workplaces; lower standards that keep our food, air and water safe; and more.

Also on our radar screen:

– Lawmakers hold yet another hearing designed to undermine the regulatory system. This one comes on Thursday, when the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs’ Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management discusses the best way to review regulations. The wording of the notice trots out the usual rhetoric about burdensome rules and comes just a week after Sens. Angus King (I-Maine), Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) announced the formation of a “regulations caucus,” ostensibly to address “overregulation.”

The focus of the caucus and next week’s hearing is wrong. At a time when people are being killed and injured by defective airbags, when entire towns are in harm’s way because they are in the path of dangerous oil trains, when many workers are still not adequately protected from workplace hazards, the problem isn’t too much regulation – it’s too little. In fact, regulations are a great investment. In a draft of its latest annual report (PDF) to Congress, the White House Office of Management and Budget found that the monetary benefits of rules dramatically outweigh their costs.

The regulatory process is too slow and too captured by industry to protect Americans. Instead of attacking safeguards, Congress should investigate why regulations are so slow to be issued and so poorly enforced.

– Fossil fuel boosters will continue to try to block the Obama administration’s climate rule. Lawmakers are using the Congressional Review Act (CRA) in an attempt to block implementation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s new rules to limit carbon dioxide emissions from new and existing power plants. The lawmakers pushing it (Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, both of Kentucky, and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.)) hail from states whose residents will fare quite well under the rule for existing power plants. Consumers will save money because they will use less power, a Public Citizen analysis shows.

Lawmakers should not set great store by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s April testimony from attorney John Beisner before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on the Judiciary. In his testimony, Beisner advocated legislation to prevent what he labels “overbroad” or “no-injury” class actions. A new Public Citizen report, “The Fiction of the ‘No-Injury’ Class Action,” counters his argument case by case.

Because class-action lawsuits are often the only feasible way to bring small-dollar claims, class actions are powerful tools for combating corporate wrongdoing and are frequently a target for corporate interests seeking to limit consumers’ access to court remedies.

In one of its many theories about why consumers’ should not be able to hold bad actors accountable, the Chamber’s lobbyists are pushing the idea that consumers who were duped by misrepresentations into buying products or overpaying for products have suffered “no injury.”

Public Citizen’s report has the goods on the real letter of the law: Consumers conned into buying a product that is defective or mislabeled have suffered economic injury. For example, consumers duped into purchasing worthless cold remedies have suffered an obvious injury, but Beisner’s testimony for the Chamber called their lawsuit a “no-injury” class action.

Public Citizen’s report looks past the façade of Beisner’s arguments and reviews each of the class-action lawsuits referenced in his testimony to show that the cases involved real injuries suffered by consumers who bought defective products or made purchases because of misrepresentations.

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