Dems build case for obtaining Trump's tax returns

House Democrats on Thursday used a much-anticipated Ways and Means Committee subcommittee hearing to help make their case for obtaining President TrumpDonald John TrumpGraham: America must 'accept the pain that comes in standing up to China' Weld 'thrilled' more Republicans are challenging Trump New data challenges Trump's economic narrative MORE’s tax returns from the Treasury Department.

“When we have cause for concern over conflicts or tax violations, we have every reason to use the authority given to this committee. The law is on our side,” Rep. Bill PascrellWilliam (Bill) James PascrellBottom Line Democrats denounce Trump's attack on Cummings: 'These are not the words of a patriot' Two Democrats vow to press forward on Trump impeachment MORE (D-N.J.), a leader in Democrats’ push to obtain Trump’s tax returns, said at Thursday's hearing.

Obtaining Trump’s tax returns is one of the new House Democratic majority’s top oversight priorities. Democrats are interested in reviewing the documents to learn about any possible conflicts of interests that Trump may have.

Trump has broken with decades of tradition in refusing to make his tax returns public. He has cited a years-long Internal Revenue Service audit, though the IRS has said that audits don’t prevent people from releasing their tax information.

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A provision in the federal tax code allows the chairmen of Congress’s tax committees to request anyone’s tax returns from the Treasury Department and review them in a closed session. The committees could vote to send a report on the returns to the full House or Senate, and tax-return information in the report could then become public.

Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard NealRichard Edmund NealDemocrats push judge for quick action on Trump tax returns lawsuit Trump argues NY tax return case should take place in DC NY files motion to keep Trump tax returns lawsuit out of DC court MORE (D-Mass.) has said he plans to use his authority to request Trump’s tax returns, but he’s also said he wants to move methodically because the request is likely to lead to a lengthy legal battle.

Neal, who faces pressure from some progressive lawmakers and outside groups to make the request promptly, was not present Thursday. The hearing was a Ways and Means oversight subpanel hearing led by subcommittee chairman Rep. John LewisJohn LewisCummings invites Trump to visit Baltimore House Democrat knocks Trump's Cummings tweet: 'This guy is a terrible, terrible human being' George Wallace's daughter: 'I saw Daddy a lot' during 2016 election MORE (D-Ga.). Several other Ways and Means members who are not on the subcommittee were in attendance, including Pascrell and senior Ways and Means member Lloyd DoggettLloyd Alton DoggettHere are the 95 Democrats who voted to support impeachment Speaker Pelosi, seize the moment to make history on drug pricing House Democrats sue Treasury to turn over Trump tax returns MORE (D-Texas).

Some Democrats on Thursday zeroed in on establishing Congress’s legal ability to request, obtain and publicly disclose the returns.

Rep. Judy ChuJudy May ChuLawmakers urge DNC to name Asian American debate moderator US must stay true to its values and fight the public charge rule Pelosi predicts Trump public charge rule will be 'swiftly challenged and defeated' MORE (D-Calif.) asked whether the Ways and Means Committee has the legal authority to submit the returns to the House to make them public.

University of Virginia law professor George Yin replied that the legislative intent behind the tax committee’s authority to request the returns “was to allow the potential of a public disclosure.”

Lewis, asked by Yin if the Treasury Department has any ability to refuse a request for the returns, said the statute "provides no basis for a refusal.”

A department spokesperson has said that Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinMnuchin: Trump's 'as determined as ever' on China trade fight Sunday shows preview: Trump ratchets up trade war with China The Hill's Morning Report: How will Trump be received at G-7? MORE will review any request for tax returns with the department’s general counsel to determine if it’s legal.

Republicans at the hearing expressed opposition to requesting Trump’s tax returns, arguing that it’s important to protect taxpayers’ privacy.

“The question is where does it end,” said Rep. Mike KellyGeorge (Mike) Joseph KellyHouse votes to repeal ObamaCare's 'Cadillac tax' GOP lawmaker: 'I'm a person of color. I'm white.' Trump signs bipartisan IRS reform bill MORE (R-Pa.), the top Republican on the subcommittee. “What about the tax returns of the speaker, members of Congress or federal employees, or for that matter, any political donors? There is no end in sight for those whose tax information may be in jeopardy.”

Republicans’ witness at the hearing, Federal Policy Group managing director Ken Kies, said that if he were advising lawmakers, he wouldn’t feel comfortable telling them that they could definitely make the tax returns public under the law if they obtained the documents from Treasury.

Pascrell asked Kies if he thought Ways and Means Committee Republicans violated the law in 2014 when they made some tax information public during their investigation into the IRS’s scrutiny of conservative groups’ applications for tax-exempt status. Kies replied, “absolutely.”

Kelly noted that Republicans’ actions were made during a criminal investigation.

Democrats also used the hearing to build a case for a provision in their ethics package, known as H.R. 1, that would require presidents, vice presidents and major-party nominees for those positions to disclose 10 years of tax returns.

The House is expected to pass H.R. 1, but the bill isn’t expected to pass the GOP-controlled Senate.

Joseph Thorndike, a tax-history expert at Tax Analysts, said he thinks the tradition of presidential candidates releasing their tax returns is “imperiled,” both with Trump’s refusal to release his returns and because some other presidential candidates only released parts of their returns.

“I believe we would all be better off … if this informal tradition were transformed into something more substantial, well-defined and legally binding,” he said.

Lewis said the public has a right to know how presidential and vice presidential candidates earn their money and what conflicts of interest they may have.

“The hearing, this is not the end, this is just the beginning,” he said.