Editorial: Release Trump’s tax returns

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

Republicans may be right that efforts by Congressional Democrats to force the release of President Donald Trump’s tax returns may open a big can of worms. But, this is nearly certain: The Trump administration’s refusal to release them will open an even larger can.

The country seems destined to have a constitutional crisis during the Trump administration. Tax returns, of all things, are now the dark horse candidate to create one. Most likely it won’t be what is in the returns that creates the crisis. It could be this fight leading to their release.

If for some reason you have changed channels and no longer are watching the soap opera “As D.C. Churns,” this is the basic information: The Democratic chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee has filed a written request with the IRS that six years of President Trump’s tax returns, and those of some affiliated companies, be released to the congressional committee.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, who oversees the IRS, has thus far not complied with the request. Instead, Mnuchin has said the congressional request “raises serious issues concerning the constitutional scope of congressional investigative authority.”

Democrats, though, didn’t pull this idea from thin air. There is a provision within the federal tax code that clearly says the IRS must turn over tax returns, if the chairs of certain congressional committees request them.

Mnuchin hasn’t denied that the law requires this. Rather, he simply seems to be saying he doesn’t like the law. Oh, if we are making lists of things we don’t like . . . Clearly, there is a reason why we aren’t allowed to disobey a law simply because we don’t like it.

Republicans also argue that the Democrats may be creating a dangerous precedent that will weaponize tax returns of those seeking office, or perhaps even more ordinary citizens. It is valid for Republicans to raise those concerns. Hopefully it is something that Democrats have thought through. The same part of the tax code also allows the president to receive the return of any taxpayer, if the president makes such a request in writing and provides a general reason for seeking the return.

Notably, the law does not require the congressional committee chairs to provide any reason for why they are seeking tax returns. It would be helpful, though, if Democrats would do so. It probably should be for reasons greater than mere curiosity. If Democrats simply think every president should have his or her tax returns released, then there probably should be a specific law requiring it.

Hopefully another thing Democrats have thought about is what happens if the returns are released and they show no evidence of wrongdoing? It is worth thinking about because you could argue that if the returns really did have a smoking gun in them, Congress already would have them. The same section of tax code that allows certain Congressional committees to get the returns also has a whistleblower provision. Tax code section 6103 allows any person who had access to the returns — i.e. IRS employees — to provide the returns to any one of the specified congressional committees, if the person believes the returns “may relate to possible misconduct, maladministration, or taxpayer abuse.” If the returns show nothing of substance, Democrats rightly may have to answer to the electorate.

There is much to think about with this issue, but the one thought that should never be entertained is that the executive branch — the Trump administration — can simply choose to deprive Congress of its powers. Congress has as much power as the office of the president in our system of government. Every member of Congress — regardless of party — should defend the power of Congress.

Release the returns — or else we risk a return to the monarchical type of government that our founders risked so much to exorcise.


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