Unless you live in Massachusetts’ First Congressional District, you can be forgiven for not having much of a clue as to who Congressman Richard Neal is, even though this year marks his 30th year in office. But as the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, he’s one of the most powerful members of the House of Representatives, and can single-handedly fulfill a top Democratic campaign promise whenever he wants. For some reason, he’s not doing it.
That campaign promise is accessing President Donald Trump’s tax returns and making them public, through a provision in federal law that allows the chair of either the House or Senate Ways and Means Committees (or the Joint Committee on Taxation) to request and receive the tax returns of anyone in America.
It’s as simple as that: all Neal has to do is request it. And yet...he hasn’t. And as HuffPost reported on Monday, it’s so far unclear whether or not we’re even going to get them before the next presidential election. “I can’t substitute my timetable for the federal courts,” Neal told HuffPost, a reference to a possible court case over the issue that could take months or even years to resolve. “I’ve been very careful not to presuppose a timeline.”
Treasury Sec. Steven Mnuchin has indicated he’d fight the release, saying at hearing earlier this month that he “will protect the president as we would protect any individual taxpayer under their rights.” But the law itself is clear, mandating that “the secretary shall furnish such committee with any return or return information specified in such request,” and this provision was used as recently as 2014 by Republicans on the same committee during the fake “IRS discriminates against conservatives” scandal to publicly release tax information, according to the New York Times.
Democrats have been ranting and raving about Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns ever since the 2016 campaign, where he became the first major-party nominee in recent memory to refuse to release his returns. But there are actual good reasons (aside from norms being broken) to obtain and make Trump’s tax returns publicly available. Per HuffPost:
Trump was the first major presidential candidate in decades not to voluntarily release personal tax information, which can reveal details of his income sources, charitable giving and how much tax he pays. He’s also the first modern president not to divest from his businesses, meaning people or organizations can essentially pay him to try to influence policy.
Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, testified last month that the president has manipulated the value of his assets in order to borrow money and get favorable tax treatment, which could be considered criminal acts.
Being accused of actual tax crimes by his own lawyer and the possibility that the billionaire president of the United States has gone years without paying income taxes are two very good reasons to obtain and release Trump’s tax returns. He’s not a private citizen. He’s the president!
And yet Neal, in typical Democratic fashion, is nine-dimensional chessing himself out of doing something he has the clear authority to do, in order to...what, exactly? Build a public case for getting Trump’s tax returns, something the public already wants him to do?
If it’s to avoid seeming partisan, bad news, buddy: That ship has long since sailed. Neal could be the bluest Blue Dog in Congress and no matter how long he waits, or what lengths he goes to in order to get approval from everyone he’s ever met to request Trump’s tax returns, his mug is going to be plastered all over GOP ads next year along with Nancy Pelosi’s and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s as the faces of the Democrats’ socialist agenda.
Neal’s slow-walking is even frustrating his fellow Democrats. “I think you got to forget about next year anything happening, so we got eight, nine months to go through courts, get his returns,” Democratic Rep. Bill Pascrell, a fellow member of the committee, told HuffPost. “I think the request has to go in very, very soon. I thought it would be done by now.”
But Neal’s approach has backing from Pelosi. “It’s not a question of just sending a letter,” the House Speaker said back in February. “You have to do it in a very careful way.” Counterpoint: yes it is, and no you don’t.
Trump paying taxes isn’t the most precious issue we face, but it’s symptomatic of the central endemic problem of the Democratic Party: the fear of using power that it actually has, that it’s been given by voters, to do good things. They are allergic to power. And if the Democrats can’t even use this power to do something as minor as make the tax returns of the literal president of the country public, what good can they actually be counted on to do?