SEATTLE – President Donald Trump’s unwillingness to release his tax returns is helping renew a debate on whether the practice should be expected of elected federal office holders ahead of this year’s midterms.
Although there’s no constitutional requirement for candidates or elected officials to make their returns public, Trump has broken with more than four decades of tradition set by previous presidents. In Congress, almost half of lawmakers have called on Trump to disclose the documents, but just 1 of every 10 have released their own, according to data compiled by Roll Call last year.
In an election year where the balance of power in the House hinges on two dozen so-called toss-up districts, some candidates are capitalizing on the issue to claim the high ground in transparency.
Most of those districts are held by Republicans trying to distance themselves from Trump, but the strategy may pressure more legislators from both parties and candidates vying for their seats to disclose tax documents, according to Lee Drutman, senior fellow at New America, a nonpartisan research house.
“For Democrats, it’s a way of indirectly invoking the Trump issue without having to directly campaign against Trump in competitive districts,” Drutman said. “It’s a fair concern for people. If you’re voting for a member of Congress, it’s reasonable to understand how they made their money and what the potential sources of influence and conflict of interest are.”
In Washington state’s 5th District, Republican incumbent Cathy McMorris Rodgers released her returns last month for the first time since winning the House seat in 2004. The move came in response to a request by The Spokesman-Review, prompting her Democratic opponent Lisa Brown to do the same. The district, which borders Idaho and where McMorris Rodgers has enjoyed easy victories, is one of 24 classified as toss-up contests in November by The Cook Political Report.
“In the last couple of years, the congresswoman felt that trust and confidence in representative government has been broken, so she’s doing her part to restore it by doing what she believes is right,” said Jared Powell, a spokesman for McMorris Rodgers. “She wanted to show that she voted for the tax reform bill for all the right reasons, which is that it provides relief for the middle class, creates jobs, and makes filing easier.”
Two McMorris Rodgers’ constituents, interviewed in downtown Spokane, expressed modest interest in the issue of tax returns.
“I like it. Not that I read them,” said Joanne Krupke, 65, who lives near Davenport. “Just to show transparency.”
Sally Dashiell, 41, of Spokane, said she thinks politicians should generally release their tax returns.
“I’d be for it,” she said. “But it’s not a big deal.”
Last year, the Republican-controlled House and Senate passed the biggest changes to U.S. tax laws in three decades over criticism from Democrats that they disproportionately benefit corporations and the wealthy. In addition to basic income and tax and charity payments, legislators’ returns would reveal capital market investments that could be impacted by those changes.
Federal law requires candidates to file financial disclosure forms that record wide ranges, rather than specific values, of income and assets and don’t show whether taxes were paid. At issue are people’s right to privacy and the potential usefulness of information obtained from tax returns, said Abigail Blanco, who teaches economics at the University of Tampa.
“If someone’s business dealings indicate they’re more inclined to engage in cronyism, that’s important for people to know,” said Blanco, “But if someone is making a half a million dollars from a legitimate business, then having people digging into their tax returns isn’t very productive or indicative of whether or not they’re qualified to do their job on a national level.”
But it’s not just in competitive districts that the issue is being raised. In New York’s 23rd, a safe Republican seat held by Rep. Tom Reed since 2010, Democratic challenger Eddie Sundquist has released five years of his tax returns and is promising voters to draft a measure that would require all congressional candidates to do the same. The action is part of his effort to build a new caucus within the Democratic Party that would put term limits on the party’s leadership positions in both chambers.
Reed was one of 23 Republicans on the House Ways and Means Committee that thwarted an effort by Democrats last year to force Trump to turn over his returns.
“We’ve got an administration that’s more covert than ever, and it’s unwilling to be accountable,” Sundquist said. “We think all politicians need to be accountable to the people they represent.”
In another expected close Washington state race, the top two Democratic candidates in the 8th District have released their tax returns, raising pressure on Republican Dino Rossi to end his long-held resistance to the practice. One of the Democrats, Kim Schrier, likened Rossi’s refusal to Trump’s stance.
In Colorado’s 6th District, Republican Mike Coffman has disclosed his returns since 2014, despite winning by comfortable margins since joining the House in 2008.
“It’s a bigger issue now because of the hubbub around Trump’s returns, but the congressman has always shown that transparency is a core part of his identity and brand,” said Coffman’s spokesman, Tyler Sandeberg. “He absolutely thinks that others should release theirs. People should have a right to judge the full history of the man or woman that wants to run for Congress.”