Richard E. Neal, a Democrat, represents Massachusetts’s 1st Congressional District in the House and is chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.
For three decades, the House of Representatives and its Ways and Means Committee have been the site of my life’s work. I never aspired to be a senator or governor or president.
Instead, I learned arcane House rules and sought a position on the Ways and Means Committee because of its tremendous potential to help my district. I have listened to my constituents on matters such as taxes, health care, international trade and Social Security, which are within the committee’s purview. Untold hours have gone into developing legislation and trying to improve, pass or defeat countless bills. That’s the job.
I’d rather hold a roundtable in Pittsfield, Mass., or cross-examine Medicare administrators than pick fights on cable news. Those arguments tend to drive people into their corners, shrinking opportunities to accomplish real results.
I’m an institutionalist. I respect Congress, for all its imperfections. As chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, I am responsible for congressional oversight of the Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Service’s administration of the federal tax code. The tax code gives the committee chairman the power to request taxpayer information from the IRS. The committee has exercised this power at various times in the past and has never been denied by the IRS or the Treasury Department.
In early April, I requested the president’s tax returns to fulfill a legitimate congressional oversight responsibility: Our voluntary tax-compliance system hinges on the public’s faith that our tax laws are administered fairly and without favor to those in power. The president is unique: No other American has the power to sign bills into law and direct an entire branch of government. That power, and the extent to which the IRS can audit and enforce federal tax laws against a current or future president, merits closer legislative scrutiny.
The IRS has a policy of performing mandatory audits on all sitting presidents and vice presidents. But neither Congress nor the public knows anything about the scope of those audits and whether the president can exert undue influence on the IRS to affect his or her tax treatment. If, for example, the president is already under audit at the time he or she takes office, what happens to that audit? We don’t know.
My committee will consider legislation regarding the mandatory audit program to ensure these audits are conducted fairly and without undue influence from the commander in chief. And, as part of our deliberations, we must review his tax information to better understand the audit program and propose any needed changes.
The law on this is very clear: The IRS “shall furnish ” the Ways and Means Committee with the requested tax returns. Both Democrats and Republicans have made requests for taxpayer information under 6103(f)(1) of the U.S. tax code in the past. The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that Congress is entitled to a presumption that its investigatory activities are legitimate, and, in this case, the legitimacy is self-evident. And yet, the administration has stonewalled Congress, ordering the IRS commissioner not to comply with the plain language of the law and setting up a pending legal clash.
I did not pick this fight, but I will not shirk it because it’s about something much bigger than tax forms. This is not an exercise in political retribution: I am not willing to trade the reputation of the Ways and Means Committee for cheap political gains.
The committee is a venerable part of U.S. history, having given the nation Social Security, Medicare, the entire tax code, all of our trade agreements, and numerous programs serving children and families. This committee financed America’s role in both world wars, and its antecedent paid for the Lewis and Clark expedition. I have no intention of squandering my chairmanship of this distinguished panel on petty or malevolent efforts to embarrass the current president.
But in this country, we take seriously the Magna Carta’s precept of the rule of law, not the law of rulers. I will fight with everything I have to reassert Congress’s constitutional mandate to serve as an equal branch of government. This country has thrived through the centuries because we have durable political institutions with a robust system of checks and balances.
Our political institutions won’t continue to function unless we guard them vigilantly, and my colleagues and I in the House majority are committed to doing so. It is the root of our oath to uphold the law.