IT’S UNDERSTANDABLE why Donald Trump has felt no compunction about refusing to release his tax returns. After all, he got elected president despite breaking his promise to release his IRS filings, thus thumbing his nose at a tradition that had been followed by every major-party candidate for four decades. Keeping the information under wraps also appears to be an effective way of stymieing questions about whether there are potential conflicts of interest posed by his private business empire. What doesn’t make sense is that Congress lets him get away with this, particularly since it soon will be debating an overhaul of tax policy. Shouldn’t elected representatives know how President Trump might benefit and what interests are really being served?
Unfortunately but predictably, an effort that would have forced release of Mr. Trump’s tax information was shut down last week by House Republicans. In a party-line vote Thursday, the House Ways and Means Committee rejected a resolution that would have directed the Treasury Department to turn over the tax returns of Mr. Trump and his many businesses. A law enacted in 1924 after the Teapot Dome scandal allows the Way and Means Committee, along with the Senate Committee on Finance and the Joint Committee on Taxation, to request tax information for review in a closed session with possible public disclosure.
The rarely used authority to obtain tax information can be invoked only in the public’s interest. “How can we debate tax reform proposals without seeing the president’s tax returns?” asked Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-N.J.), who sponsored the resolution. “Congress has the authority and the duty to obtain and review President Trump’s tax returns to ensure there are no potential conflicts of interest in the tax policies he is proposing.” Release also would provide insight into whether Mr. Trump’s private business dealings, including with foreign investors, created conflicts that undermine the public interest.
Republicans saw it differently, calling the attempt to get Mr. Trump’s information an invasion of privacy. Need they be reminded that the person who sits in the Oval Office is not a private citizen, something recognized for the past 40 years by every person — Democratic and Republican — who held the high office? It appears Republicans also need to be reminded that Congress’s job is not to provide slavish political cover for the executive, but rather independent oversight.
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