The only Democrat who can legally demand to see Donald Trump’s tax records has come under fire from colleagues for not using the newest tool in the bag to get them. Ways and Means chair Rep. Richard Neal (D-NY) has already invoked 26 USC 6103 and gone to federal court to exercise his oversight authority over the Treasury to review Trump’s returns. Supposedly, Andrew Cuomo handed Neal the keys by signing a law making presidential tax returns accessible by chairs of three congressional committees.
Instead, NBC reports, Neal has refused to act under that authority — and that has his fellow Democrats steaming:
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently signed into law legislation designed to make it easier for Congress to obtain President Donald Trump’s state tax returns.
So far, the only Democrat able to utilize that law wants nothing to do with it.
It’s just one of a series of decisions that have landed House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., in hot water with those on the left who feel the longtime lawmaker hasn’t done nearly enough to obtain the president’s taxes. …
An aide to a Democratic member of Ways and Means told NBC News that “there has been widespread frustration from members of the committee at how slowly this process has moved.”
“We respect his focus on moving rapidly on health care, tax policy, and pensions but at the same time many of us have tried to express the sense of urgency which we and our constituents feel about enforcing the law and obtaining Trump’s tax returns, and we just haven’t seen that sense of urgency reflected over the past six months,” the aide added.
Neal actually has a good answer to his critics. Trying to duck around the federal courts with the New York law could fatally undermine Democrats’ contentions that Neal’s interest in Trump’s returns are not political:
House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal would be the only Democrat allowed by the new law to ask for the documents, but so far he has said he won’t do it.
Neal has said he fears that getting the state returns would bolster Trump administration arguments that Congress is on a political fishing expedition — and not, as Neal has claimed, overseeing the Internal Revenue Service’s annual audits of the president.
It may not matter much either way. Neal has the better argument already on 26 USC 6103, even though it’s patently obvious that Democrats are on a political fishing expedition. Trump has been fighting Neal in court over that point with plenty of citations about the limits of congressional investigations (including Watkins), but the statute itself is pretty clear on Neal’s authority.
It’s also clear that the statute limits Neal to an in camera review with no release of personal tax information. That restriction will be a laughably ineffective barrier if and when Neal does get his hands on Trump’s tax returns. The Ways and Means staff will leak like sieves at that point, and they will make sure to leak out of context. Trump will almost have to publicly release all his tax returns at that point in order to counter those attacks.
All of this is pointless ugliness, and dangerous to boot, as I wrote two months ago:
Watkins makes it clear that one party winning a majority in either chamber of Congress does not authorize fishing expeditions through the private affairs of any American, whether president or pipefitter. Without an explicit and clear predicate for Congress to review Trump’s tax returns, the courts may well side with Warren in this instance. Otherwise, both parties could misuse confidential tax information to declare open season on their political opponents, the allies of their political opponents, their critics, and so on.
When politicians voluntarily release their tax returns, this has value in transparency and character assessment. And I’m not saying voters can’t assume the worst about political candidates who refuse to follow this tradition. Voters have the authority to make this criteria as important or unimportant as they see fit, and punish those who fail to meet those standards at the ballot box. We do not need to make the good compulsory, however, nor allow the same politicians the authority to access private information simply because they won an election, regardless of which branch of government they serve. For all of our sakes, we should leave it at that.
Tax returns provide us no insight other than the prurient into the personal lives of our fellow Americans. The financial disclosures provide much better insight into the wealth of politicians and their financial interests, and those are already compulsory and publicly available. This is just a game, and Neal probably knows it better than most.