Lawmakers clashed today over House Democrats’ bid to seize President Donald Trump’s long-hidden tax returns, signaling the start of a battle that could consume the White House and Congress for months.
In their first congressional hearing on the issue, Democrats said they intend to tap a rarely used law to force the release of Trump’s tax information, insisting they need it to help answer a host of questions about his finances.
“Every president should release his or her returns to the public as a matter of course,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) at the Ways and Means subcommittee on oversight.
“And when we have cause for concern over conflicts or tax violations we have every reason to use the authority given to this committee,” he said. “The law is on our side.”
Republicans argued that would set a dangerous precedent that could allow lawmakers to release the confidential tax filings of not only the president, but others’ as well — such as those of the House speaker, members of Congress, federal employees or political donors.
“Such an abuse of power would open a Pandora’s box that would be tough to get a lid back on,” said Rep. Mike Kelly (Pa.), the top Republican on the oversight panel. “Where does it end?”
“There is no end in sight for those whose tax information may be in jeopardy,” Kelly said.
Democratic lawmakers called several tax experts to testify on the issue.
The stated topic of the hearing was a portion of House Democrats’ ethics legislation, H.R. 1, that would require presidents, vice presidents and candidates for those posts to release their previous 10 years of tax returns. But that was quickly overshadowed by disagreement over Democrats’ efforts to get their hands on Trump’s tax returns using an existing law.
His filings are unlikely to be released anytime soon, with the administration promising a legal battle. The White House has an incentive to tie up the issue in court, perhaps in hope of retaking the House in the 2020 elections.
Some liberals have questioned why Thursday’s hearing is necessary, given the already lengthy public debate over Trump’s refusal to release his returns, and have complained that Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) is moving too slowly.
But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi signaled this week that she backs Neal’s cautious approach.
“I hear people say, ‘Why didn’t they do it the first day?” Pelosi told POLITICO reporters. “You have to do it right. You have to protect the prerogatives of the House of Representatives and you cannot be scattershot about that.”
At issue is a 1924 law that allows the chairs of Congress’ tax committees to examine anyone’s confidential returns.
The law has been rarely used, and Democrats’ plans come with some controversy because they would go beyond how the power has been used over the past half-century.
During the Obama administration, Republicans used it to release private information about conservative organizations that complained their applications for tax-exempt status were being held up by the IRS, though they did not release anyone’s individual returns. In a surprise, Republicans’ chosen expert witness at the hearing said he believes the GOP broke the law when it made those disclosures. “Absolutely,” Ken Kies, a former head of the Joint Committee on Taxation, told the panel when asked if the disclosures were illegal.
Though Democrats denounced that move at the time, they now cite it as a precedent for acting on Trump’s returns.
The issue also came up during the Nixon administration. Amid questions over whether Nixon underpaid his taxes, he released his returns and asked Congress’s nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation to audit him. Though Nixon’s move was voluntary, experts saylawmakers used the law to release additional information JCT gathered about Nixon’s taxes during the course of its investigation.
The issue has re-emerged now because Trump has rejected a decades-old tradition of presidents and White House hopefuls releasing their returns. Democrats say Trump’s business interests present a host of potential conflicts of interest that they can’t understand without his tax information.
A poll released last week by the Washington Post found the public is on Democrats’ side, with 60 percent saying they support their efforts. Thirty-five percent said they are opposed.
Critics of the effort point to a different tradition, one of Congress keeping people’s tax returns private, including those accused of violating the law.
“When we start making exceptions for one taxpayer, it begins the process of eroding and threatening the privacy rights of all taxpayers,” Ways and Means ranking member Kevin Brady(R-Texas) and Rep. Kelly said in a letter today to Neal. “This is a risk we cannot and should not take.”
Republicans offered to instead consider beefing up financial disclosures that are already required of the president. And in something of a turnabout, given their longtime criticism of the IRS, Republicans expressed confidence in the tax agency’s ability to vet Trump’s returns.
Even if Democrats are able to spring Trump’s returns, they will probably find them difficult to handle. His finances are likely hugely complicated, and it’s not clear if even the tax committee has the technical expertise to understand his filings. One option lawmakers have considered is handing Trump’s information over to JCT for auditing, as it did with Nixon.
Also, leaking private tax information is a felony, and individual lawmakers could find themselves in legal jeopardy if they discuss what they’ve seen in Trump’s returns without following certain procedures.
Thursday’s hearing also focused on a separate bid by Democrats to pass legislation requiring Trump as well as future presidential aspirants to release a decade’s worth of returns.
Some argue Congress ought to carve the requirement into law, instead of relying on an informal tradition of disclosure.
“If things are important enough, and I believe that transparency is one of those things, we should in fact require them legally, rather just hectoring people to try to get them to do what we want them to do,” tax historian Joseph Thorndike told the panel.
That legislation, though, is likely to die in the Republican-controlled Senate.