Though our new president may not realize it, Congress has the power to obtain his tax returns and reveal them to the public without his consent, including returns under audit. As just urged by Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-N.J.), legislators seeking information on President Trump’s possible conflicts of interest should immediately exercise this authority rather than wait for the passage of new veto-proof legislation — a highly uncertain prospect — that would have the same effect.
The ability of Congress to disclose confidential tax information was added to the law almost 100 years ago. Since the Civil War, when it began requiring taxpayers to submit private information to the government to comply with the tax laws, Congress has struggled to balance the privacy interests of taxpayers with the public’s right to know. Eventually, Congress decided that tax information should remain confidential except in two situations. First, it authorized the president to determine whether any tax information could be disclosed. And, in 1924, it gave the same power to certain congressional committees.
Congress’s right to reveal tax information independent of the president’s authority proved extremely important in 1973 and 1974, when President Richard Nixon became entangled in a controversy involving his claim of a sizable charitable deduction for giving his official papers to the National Archives.
Following Watergate, Congress changed the law to eliminate the president’s ability to order a disclosure. But it retained the right of its tax committees to do so as long as a disclosure served a legitimate committee purpose. Such a disclosure must be in the public’s interest, and today’s understandable concerns about Trump’s potential conflicts of interest would seem clearly to justify a congressional effort to obtain, investigate and possibly disclose to the public his tax information.
I am somewhat uncertain as to whether or not this can be done with only the Democrats in the House demanding it, but I think as time goes on there may be a number of Republicans who can be convinced to sign on as well.
At this point I am all but certain that Trump is terrified of having his tax records revealed, probably for a whole host of reasons, so there is no telling to what lengths he might go to keep this from happening.
However I am also convinced that there is overwhelming evidence that it is in the best interests of the country to have these tax records made public.