Democrats step up work to get Trump tax returns

Democrats step up work to get Trump tax returns
© Getty Images/Hill photo illustration

A House panel is set to hold a much-anticipated hearing on Thursday that will put Democrats’ desire to get President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Dems demand Barr cancel 'inappropriate' press conference on Mueller report DOJ plans to release 'lightly redacted' version of Mueller report Thursday: WaPo Nadler accuses Barr of 'unprecedented steps' to 'spin' Mueller report MORE’s tax returns in the spotlight.

The House Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee is holding a hearing about legislative proposals and tax law concerning presidential tax returns.

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The hearing was called to discuss a portion of House Democrats’ big ethics bill, H.R. 1, that would require presidents, vice presidents and major-party nominees for those positions to release 10 years of tax returns.

“The Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee is holding this important hearing so that Members and the public will learn about existing law, precedents and tradition, and legislative proposals to improve the integrity of our democracy,” subcommittee Chairman John LewisJohn LewisLiberals surprised by tax vote vow to kill 'Free File' provision House passes bill to modernize IRS The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump looks to get tougher on border with Nielsen out MORE (D-Ga.) said in a statement.

The hearing will be closely watched because House Democrats have pegged requesting Trump’s tax returns from the Treasury Department as one of their top oversight efforts.

Some progressives are frustrated that Ways and Means Chairman Richard NealRichard Edmund NealDems, Trump harden 2020 battle lines on Tax Day On The Money: Five things to watch on first Tax Day under Trump's law | Trump lawyer disputes Dem reasons for requesting tax returns | Trump struggles to reshape Fed Trump lawyer disputes Dem rationale for requesting tax returns MORE (D-Mass.) has yet to make the request; they want the documents  before the 2020 election.

“We’re on the edge of our seats here” for the hearing, said Tax March Executive Director Maura Quint.

She added that Tax March is supportive of H.R. 1 and hopes the hearing will “push Chairman Neal to recognize the importance of tax returns as an oversight issue” and promptly request the returns.

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Trump has refused to release his tax returns, becoming the first president not to do so in decades. According to a document that the Joint Committee on Taxation released ahead of Thursday’s hearing, every major-party presidential nominee since 1976 other than Trump has released tax returns.

The president has said he won’t release his returns while under audit, though the IRS has said that nothing prevents people from making their own tax information public.

Democrats have been interested in seeing Trump’s tax returns in order to learn about any conflicts of interest that he may have, such as any foreign investments, and are also interested in learning how he may be personally benefiting from the tax law he signed in 2017. Democrats also are interested in requiring presidents and vice presidents to make their tax documents public to increase transparency.

Democratic lawmakers have been offering legislation to require presidential candidates to disclose their returns since the 2016 campaign. The new House Democratic majority has incorporated legislation on this topic into H.R. 1 — a broad package of ethics, campaign finance and voting rights reforms which is one of Democrats’ top priorities.

House Democrats are holding a series of hearings on H.R. 1. Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiDOJ plans to release 'lightly redacted' version of Mueller report Thursday: WaPo Pelosi accuses Barr of 'single-minded effort' to protect Trump against Mueller report Dems attack Barr's credibility after report of White House briefings on Mueller findings MORE (D-Calif.) recently said she expects the House to advance the bill this month, but the bill is unlikely to  pass the Republican-controlled Senate.

Under H.R. 1, presidents, vice presidents and major-party nominees for those positions would have to disclose a decade’s worth of tax returns to the Federal Election Commission, which would make the returns publicly available.

The witnesses at Thursday’s hearing are scheduled to be Tax Analysts tax history expert Joseph Thorndike, University of Virginia law professor George Yin, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington Executive Director Noah Bookbinder, Tax Policy Center senior fellow Steven Rosenthal and Ken Kies, managing director at the Federal Policy Group.

Thorndike told The Hill on Wednesday that he plans to talk about the history of presidential and vice presidential candidates releasing their tax returns.

“I’m going to lay out pretty specifically what that tradition is,” he said.

Thorndike said he’s not going to make statements endorsing specific legislation but thinks the practice of presidents releasing their tax returns should be more regularized.

“I believe we would be better off if the tradition was formalized,” he said.

Legislation requiring disclosure of presidential tax returns faces a tough road to becoming law, but Democrats also have another avenue. They are also expected to try to obtain Trump’s tax returns by having Neal take advantage of a provision in the federal tax code that allows the chairmen of Congress’s tax-writing committees to request tax returns directly from the Treasury Department and examine in them in a closed session. The Ways and Means Committee could then vote to send a report to the House, which could make parts or all of the returns public.

Neal plans to request the documents but has been taking a cautious approach to doing so, saying it’s important to be careful and build a case before making the request because the request for the tax returns is likely to result in a lengthy court fight.

But his careful approach has led to frustration from progressive organizations.

Need to Impeach, which was founded by Democratic billionaire donor Tom Steyer, announced this week that it’s running an ad urging Neal to request the tax returns and vote to start impeachment hearings against Trump.

“In order to get this done, they have to move correctly and expeditiously, and that should not be two things that are contradictory,” Steyer told The Hill Wednesday.

Some progressive lawmakers also are starting to get antsy about Neal’s pace in requesting Trump’s tax returns.

“I’d like to see it move faster,” Rep. Pramila JayapalPramila JayapalOvernight Health Care: How 2020 Dems want to overhaul health care | Brooklyn parents sue over measles vaccination mandate | Measles outbreak nears record Democratic proposals to overhaul health care: A 2020 primer Dems counter portrait of discord MORE (D-Wash.), a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said last week. The caucus is also pressing Pelosi to expand H.R. 1 so that it requires the disclosure of presidents’ business tax returns in addition to their individual tax returns.

When asked about the ad from Steyer’s group, Neal said that requesting Trump’s tax returns is “not going to get done any faster or any slower until the case is made.”

Neal said that the purpose of congressional hearings is “to shed some light on issues,” and that’s what Thursday’s hearing will accomplish.

Rep. Bill PascrellWilliam (Bill) James PascrellOn The Money: Conservatives rally behind Moore for Fed | White House interviewing other candidates | Trump, Dems spar on Tax Day | Budget watchdogs bemoan 'debt denialism' Dems, Trump harden 2020 battle lines on Tax Day Trump lawyer disputes Dem rationale for requesting tax returns MORE (D-N.J.), a leader in the push to request Trump’s tax returns, said that “so far” he’s satisfied with Neal’s pace on the issue. He predicted that Neal would make the request within the next two or three months.

The Trump administration is likely to push back against a request for Trump’s tax returns.

During his State of the Union speech Tuesday, Trump derided “ridiculous partisan investigations.”

Politico reported earlier this week that the Trump administration is planning to fight a Democratic request for the returns, both through legal arguments and by painting Democrats’ efforts as politically motivated.

A Treasury spokesperson has repeatedly said that department Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinOn The Money: Cain 'very committed' to Fed bid despite opposition | Pelosi warns no US-UK trade deal if Brexit harms Irish peace | Ivanka Trump says she turned down World Bank job Treasury targets Venezuelan central bank with sanctions Mnuchin plans to hire ex-Fox News contributor Monica Crowley: report MORE will review any request with the department’s general counsel for legality.

Kies, who was invited to testify at the hearing by Lewis at the request of Ways and Means Committee Republicans, said he plans to say that even if Democrats received the tax returns after requesting them from Treasury, it would likely be a felony to make them public.

Congressional Republicans are strongly opposed to Democrats requesting Trump’s returns from Treasury, arguing that it’s an abuse of power and an invasion of privacy. They’re expected to push back forcefully on the topic at Thursday’s hearing.

“Weaponizing the tax code for political purposes sets a dangerous precedent,” said House Ways and Means Committee ranking member Kevin BradyKevin Patrick BradyTreasury to miss Dem deadline for Trump tax returns Treasury expected to miss Dem deadline on Trump tax returns Mnuchin tells Congress it's 'premature' to talk about Trump tax returns decision MORE (R-Texas).

Brady added that at the hearing, Republicans will ask questions about whether legislation requiring disclosure of 10 years of presidential tax returns would benefit taxpayers.