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The President’s Tax Returns

February 8, 2019

**To download the audio version of this column, click here.**

By Rep. Adrian Smith

As most of us know by now, President Trump was the first candidate for president in 40 years not to release his tax returns prior to taking office. With full knowledge of this fact, the American people elected him president, and under federal law he is entitled to the same privacy and legal protections as any other American citizen. I therefore do not support the unilateral disclosure of the president’s tax returns by Congress or any of its members, though I would have preferred he voluntarily release them to avoid our current situation.

Democrats have promised since President Trump was first elected that, if given the opportunity, they would request his tax returns from the IRS and release them publicly. Now in the majority, my Democrat colleagues can legally attempt to do this with a majority vote in the House, though such a move would set a dangerous and inappropriate precedent.

I take this issue very seriously not only because I would have to vote on any action before the House of Representatives to disclose the president’s tax returns, but also because the House Ways and Means Committee, on which I serve, has jurisdiction over the IRS. Any request for private tax returns must originate in one of the tax committees: Senate Finance, House Ways and Means, or the Joint Committee on Taxation.

In the past, Congress has requested tax returns from the IRS on a limited basis to inform policymaking. When the IRS was discovered to have engaged in targeting of conservative non-profit groups, congressional investigators requested the returns of all known affected parties but not of specific individuals. The law is specific on public disclosure of tax returns or information about them by Congress or the executive branch, which can also request them, without a majority vote - it’s explicitly illegal.

Conspiracy theories range far and wide as to what we can expect from such disclosure, but the current debate is more about trying to embarrass the president than performing actual oversight. We have no reason to believe tax evasion is taking place for the simple reason the IRS audits the tax returns of every president and vice president annually while in office. Any explicitly illegal activity would therefore be prosecuted.

The practice of unilaterally releasing tax returns would set a dangerous precedent eroding our most basic privacy rights. Congress is rightfully vested with a great deal of power in our constitutional democracy, but this also means there is virtually no check on its power. Weaponizing the president’s tax returns against him because political parties don’t agree on policy would be undignified, dangerous, and could lead to retribution.