Democrats press Trump Treasury picks on donor disclosure guidelines

Democrats press Trump Treasury picks on donor disclosure guidelines
© Greg Nash

Democratic senators at a hearing on Wednesday pressed Treasury Department nominees on guidance the department issued last year reducing donor disclosure requirement for certain tax-exempt groups.

“This makes it easier for dark-money groups to be able to do their business in secret,” Senate Finance Committee ranking member Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenOvernight Health Care: GOP senator says drug price action unlikely this year | House panel weighs ban on flavored e-cigs | New York sues Juul Top GOP senator: Drug pricing action unlikely before end of year Senate aides met with tax return whistleblower: report MORE (D-Ore.) said.

The Finance Committee held a hearing on four nominations to Treasury and tax court positions. These included the nominations of Brent McIntosh, the current Treasury general counsel, to be a Treasury undersecretary, and Brian Callanan, the current Treasury deputy general counsel, to succeed McIntosh as general counsel.

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Democrats focused many of their questions to McIntosh and Callanan on the process Treasury undertook before issuing the donor disclosure guidance. 

Under the guidance, which Treasury issued with the IRS, certain tax-exempt groups — including social-welfare organizations such as the National Rifle Association and the American Civil Liberties Union — will no longer be required to report the names and addresses of major donors on annual forms.

Republicans have said the guidance is important in order to protect taxpayers’ privacy and First Amendment rights. But Democrats have long taken issue with the guidance, which they say could make it easier for foreign government and “dark money” groups to influence U.S. elections. Last year, the Senate approved a resolution to overturn the guidance, though the House did not take it up.

Wyden and Sen. Maggie HassanMargaret (Maggie) HassanHillicon Valley: Progressives oppose funding bill over surveillance authority | Senators call for 5G security coordinator | Facebook gets questions over location tracking | Louisiana hit by ransomware attack Senate Democrats urge DHS to fund cyber threat information-sharing programs Hillicon Valley: Facebook launches 'News Tab' | Senate passes bill to take on 'deepfakes' | Schumer outlines vision for electric cars MORE (D-N.H.) asked the Treasury nominees about the decision to not provide a comment period before issuing the donor guidance.

Hassan noted that two states, Montana and New Jersey, have challenged the guidance in court because there wasn’t a public notice and comment period. She argued that the guidance could make it harder for the government to go after pharmaceutical companies who funded nonprofits that provided fraudulent information about drug addiction.

“In effect, the Treasury has hamstrung law enforcement’s ability to follow the money and hold pharma accountable for fraud,” she said.

McIntosh said the IRS made the decision to issue the guidance without a notice and comment period. He said he was aware that the guidance was going to be issued but he didn’t decide that the guidance wouldn’t come in the form of a regulation.

McIntosh also said he thinks there is a “long tradition” of the IRS relieving reporting requirements without notice and comment.

Callanan said that other units at Treasury and the IRS first analyzed the guidance action, and that he reviewed their analysis and “was comfortable with the substantive and procedural legal considerations, that it was within the statutory authority.”

Sen. Bob CaseyRobert (Bob) Patrick CaseyNew ObamaCare enrollment period faces Trump headwinds Scrap House defense authorization provision benefitting Russia Here are the Senate Democrats backing a Trump impeachment inquiry over Ukraine call MORE Jr. (D-Pa.) asked the nominees if Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) was consulted before the guidance was issued.

Callanan said that FinCEN generally doesn’t make use of tax-return information, and that the legal path for FinCEN to access such information is “exceedingly narrow.” He said that he didn’t know if FinCEN was consulted but would look into it. 

Callanan also said, in response to a letter Wyden and Casey sent to the IRS earlier this month, that lawyers for the IRS’s criminal tax function were consulted.

Sen. Catherine Cortez MastoCatherine Marie Cortez MastoHouse and Senate Dems implore McConnell to sign DACA legislation to protect 'Dreamers' Democrats unifying against Joe Kennedy Senate bid Former state senator gets DSCC endorsement in North Carolina Senate race MORE (D-Nev.) asked if Treasury was lobbied to reduce tax-exempt groups’ donor disclosure requirements.

Callanan said he was aware of a public letter from a number of tax-exempt groups, and that there were a number of lawmakers who had asked about the issue, including Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonDem senator says Zelensky was 'feeling the pressure' to probe Bidens Former Bush aide defends Vindman, criticizes GOP congressmen for 'defaming' him Bipartisan senators urge national security adviser to appoint 5G coordinator MORE (R-Wis.).

Wyden said he has “deep concerns” about McIntosh and Callanan’s nominations because of their roles at Treasury when the donor guidance was issued and because of their involvement in Treasury’s rejection of House Democrats’ request for President TrumpDonald John TrumpDem senator says Zelensky was 'feeling the pressure' to probe Bidens 2020 Dems slam Trump decision on West Bank settlements Trump calls latest impeachment hearings 'a great day for Republicans' MORE’s tax returns.

Wyden had put a hold on the nominations in June, because he found Treasury’s responses to his questions about the handling of the tax return request unsatisfactory. Last week, Wyden announced that he would let the nominations move forward, after Treasury provided information that the senator said confirmed that the department’s actions are “unprecedented.” 

“Mr. McIntosh and Mr. Callanan are currently the top lawyers at the Treasury Department,” Wyden said. “It has appeared that Treasury’s leadership is more interested in protecting Donald Trump and party interests than guaranteeing the department follows the law. So in my judgment, that’s not the kind of conduct that gets you a promotion.”