For the last two years, U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell has maintained that the federal tax code gives Congress the power to obtain tax returns President Donald Trump refused to make public while running for office in 2016. A new effort launched this month by the House’s Democratic majority should determine whether Pascrell is right.
The push to get Trump’s tax returns is being led by the Ways and Means Committee, which Pascrell (D-9th) serves on. Pascrell suggested yesterday it is important for members of Congress to know whether Trump has any conflicts of interest and whether he’s “paying his fair share.”
“I think we have a right to know what he’s hiding,” Pascrell said.
Trump, a Republican, has long maintained that he can’t release his tax returns because they are subject to an ongoing audit by the Internal Revenue Service and his administration has not cooperated with the committee’s request for them. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin reportedly is waiting for legal advice from the Department of Justice on the matter; Mnuchin said during a recent appearance on Fox News that Congress would “never” see Trump’s returns.
A fight in court beckons
Pascrell and other congressional Democrats say they are prepared to issue a subpoena for the returns, meaning the issue is likely to end up in court.
The committee’s push for Trump’s returns rests on legal authority that Congress was granted after a major corruption episode during the administration of then-President Warren G. Harding in the 1920s. For those who aren’t students of history, Pascrell said yesterday that Congress was granted the authority to obtain anyone’s tax returns in the wake of the Teapot Dome Scandal, which took down Harding’s interior secretary after it was revealed that he took bribes from oil companies in exchange for granting them lucrative oil-field leases.
The decades-old section of the tax code will test whether Trump is correct about being unable to release his returns. But as the stalemate continues, the result could be a legal battle that tests the constitutional authority of Congress itself to investigate the executive branch.
Pascrell said his colleagues are confident they will prevail if the Trump administration wants to take it that far.
“The law is very clear,” Pascrell said yesterday during a conference call with reporters that was organized by progressive activists who are also pressing for the president to release his returns.
“We have every right to do it,” the congressman said.
Bernie Sanders released his returns
There’s no official federal requirement that candidates for the presidency release their tax returns to the public, but presidential hopefuls from both parties had followed a tradition of transparency for several decades; U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a leading contender for the Democratic Party nomination, released 10 years of tax returns yesterday.
Trump, who runs a family real-estate empire, refused to release his returns when running against Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016. As president, he has dug in on the issue even as questions have been raised about potential business ties he may have with Russia or other foreign countries and whether they may be influencing his decision-making on foreign policy.
Pascrell began talking about the possibility of Congress using the tax code to obtain the president’s returns in 2017, shortly after Trump took office. Specifically, he cited the tax-code language that says the IRS “shall furnish” for the respective chairs of the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees “any returns or return information” in response to a “written request.”
Until earlier this year, Republicans controlled both committees and refused to cooperate with his request to use the tax code to obtain Trump’s returns. But Democrats took over the House in 2019, and current Ways and Means chair Richard Neal (D-Massachusetts) sent a letter earlier this month seeking tax returns filed by Trump and his businesses going back six years.
The cause of compelling the president to release his tax returns has also been taken up by Democrats who control both houses of the Legislature in New Jersey, where Trump maintains a 30 percent approval rating. Under legislation that passed the state Senate earlier this year, all candidates for both president and vice president who wish to appear on the ballot in New Jersey in 2020 would have to make public federal income-tax returns covering at least five tax years preceding the election.
New Jersey Dems go after Trump returns too
The bill doesn’t mention Trump by name, but it has been criticized by Republicans as being politically motivated and not broad enough; some Republicans want to see state lawmakers hold themselves to the same standards. The legislation has yet to advance in the Assembly, where a spokeswoman for Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) said yesterday that it remains under review.
If Gov. Phil Murphy eventually signs the bill into law, that could force the hand of ally Cory Booker, the Democratic U.S. senator from Newark who announced in February that he is seeking his party’s 2020 presidential nomination. While running for Senate in 2013, Booker gave reporters several hours to review tax returns going back 15 years, but he did not make them available to the public.
Asked whether Booker plans to disclose his tax returns as a presidential candidate, spokeswoman Sabrina Singh said yesterday that the senator believes “anyone who wants to run for president should release their tax returns.”
“Unlike Donald Trump, Cory plans on releasing his tax returns,” she said.