Come on, man. As the #5 House Democrat, Hakeem Jeffries should have prepared himself to answer a question as obvious — and amusing — as this. After all, Nancy Pelosi suggested last month that the Constitution holds her office in equal respect to the president. If the House can force Donald Trump to disclose his tax returns, shouldn’t that also apply to Pelosi? Or anyone else in Congress, for that matter?
Jeffries responded with this bit of throat-clearing and avoidance:
Reporter: H.R.1 would legally require the president and vice president to release their tax returns. Should House Speaker Pelosi be required?
— POLITICO (@politico) February 13, 2019
This comes at the same time that Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee are trying to find ways and means of getting their hands on Trump’s tax returns. Politico notes that they plan to leverage a rarely used law from the 1920s to gain access to them, but Republicans on the committee are putting up a fight. As usual in these pitched partisan battles, there’s plenty of hypocrisy to go around, too:
At issue is a 1924 law that allows the chairs of Congress’ tax committees to examine anyone’s confidential returns.
The law has been rarely used, and Democrats’ plans come with some controversy because they would go beyond how the power has been used over the past half-century.
During the Obama administration, Republicans used it to release private information about conservative organizations that complained their applications for tax-exempt status were being held up by the IRS, though they did not release anyone’s individual returns. In a surprise, Republicans’ chosen expert witness at the hearing said he believes the GOP broke the law when it made those disclosures. “Absolutely,” Ken Kies, a former head of the Joint Committee on Taxation, told the panel when asked if the disclosures were illegal.
Though Democrats denounced that move at the time, they now cite it as a precedent for acting on Trump’s returns.
The issue in this instance is that there’s no real predicate for invading Trump’s privacy. He hasn’t been accused of tax evasion or any other criminal tax action, although goodness knows the IRS has had plenty of opportunity to levy such charges. They’ve been auditing Trump every year for at least 15 years, which Trump himself admitted on the campaign trail. It’s clearly just to benefit Democrats’ political ambitions for 2020.
The problem, which Jeffries’ response here indicates, is that there’s no limiting principle for such tactics. If House Democrats do it to Trump, why can’t Senate Republicans take a peek at the historical tax returns of Michael Bloomberg, if he gets in the race? Howard Schulz? Or for that matter, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer? It doesn’t have to be limited to candidates for federal office, or even elected officials. This tactic would soon be deployed by opposition parties against Cabinet officials, agency heads, and so on.
And in service of what, exactly? Tax returns for income don’t provide any special insight into conflicts of interest; that’s what financial disclosures on wealth provide, which is already required. All Democrats want to do with this tool is cherry-pick line items to paint Trump in the worst possible light without any context whatsoever. That’s precisely how Republicans would use it too, if the precedent gets set.
Shouldn’t Congress spend its time legislating and governing?