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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 TrumpBiden to hold virtual bilateral meeting with Mexican president More than 300 charged in connection to Capitol riot Trump Jr.: There are 'plenty' of GOP incumbents who should be challenged 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 PascrellDemocrats hesitant to raise taxes amid pandemic Democratic fury with GOP explodes in House Democrats urge IRS to extend tax-filing season 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 adjust language on child tax credit in relief bill Democrats scramble to rescue minimum wage hike Biden nominee previews post-Trump trade agenda 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 LewisHarris holds first meeting in ceremonial office with CBC members Passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is the first step to heal our democracy Congressional Black Caucus unveils '100 Day Plan' 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 DoggettHouse panel advances portion of relief package that includes ,400 checks Democrats urge repeal of business loss tax breaks in relief package Pediatrician killed in hostage situation at Texas medical center 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 ChuBiden to nominate Obama alum Ahuja to lead Office of Personnel Management Pelosi, lawmakers denounce violence against Asian Americans Why Biden's diversity efforts fall flat 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 MnuchinOn The Money: Schumer urges Democrats to stick together on .9T bill | Collins rules out GOP support for Biden relief plan | Powell fights inflation fears Mnuchin expected to launch investment fund seeking backing from Persian Gulf region: report Larry Kudlow debuts to big ratings on Fox Business Network 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 KellySupreme Court won't review Pennsylvania GOP election lawsuits Pennsylvania's Democratic lt. governor files to run for Senate READ: The Republicans who voted to challenge election results 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.