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 TrumpTrump cites tax cuts over judges as having biggest impact of his presidency Trump cites tax cuts over judges as having biggest impact of his presidency Ocasio-Cortez claps back at Trump after he cites her in tweet rejecting impeachment 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 PascrellFirst major 'Medicare for All' hearing sharpens attacks on both sides First major 'Medicare for All' hearing sharpens attacks on both sides Democrats needle GOP on standing up to Trump 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 NealSchiff blasts DOJ over memo on withholding Trump tax returns Schiff blasts DOJ over memo on withholding Trump tax returns On The Money: DOJ offers legal opinion backing refusal to release Trump tax returns | Centrist Democrats raise concerns over minimum wage | Trump bashes Powell ahead of crucial Fed meeting | Design leaks for Harriet Tubman bill 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 LewisFirst major 'Medicare for All' hearing sharpens attacks on both sides First major 'Medicare for All' hearing sharpens attacks on both sides 2020 Democrats mark three years since Pulse nightclub shooting 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 DoggettFirst major 'Medicare for All' hearing sharpens attacks on both sides First major 'Medicare for All' hearing sharpens attacks on both sides Overnight Health Care: Liberals rip Democratic leaders for writing drug pricing bill in secret | Dems demand answers from company that shelters migrant kids | Measles cases top 1,000 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 ChuOvernight Health Care — Presented by PCMA — Senators unveil sweeping bipartisan health care package | House lawmakers float Medicare pricing reforms | Dems offer bill to guarantee abortion access The Go-Go's rock the stage at annual 'We Write the Songs' DC concert Pelosi faces tipping point on Trump impeachment 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 MnuchinGOP nervous that border wall fight could prompt year-end shutdown GOP nervous that border wall fight could prompt year-end shutdown Schiff blasts DOJ over memo on withholding Trump tax returns 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 KellyFirst major 'Medicare for All' hearing sharpens attacks on both sides First major 'Medicare for All' hearing sharpens attacks on both sides House to vote Monday on new version of IRS modernization 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.