Congress had a chance to get Trump’s tax returns. Republicans voted it down.

“What happens if Mr. Flynn is just the tip of the iceberg?”

President Donald Trump smiles and looks toward Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during their joint new conference in the East Room of the White House, in Washington, Friday, Feb. 10, 2017 CREDIT: (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
President Donald Trump smiles and looks toward Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during their joint new conference in the East Room of the White House, in Washington, Friday, Feb. 10, 2017 CREDIT: (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

Republicans on the House Ways and Means committee voted down a proposal on Tuesday that would have let Congress obtain President Donald Trump’s tax returns.

Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-NJ) first advanced the proposal in a letter to the committee’s chair on February 1st. His request that the committee obtain Trump’s tax returns is based on an obscure tax law: Section 6103 of the Internal Revenue Code.

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That law allows three congressional committees — House Ways and Means, Senate Finance, and the Joint Committee on Taxation — to request that the IRS disclose private tax information to the committee. The committee can then review it, and vote on whether to disclose it to the public. Both the review and disclosure must be in the public interest.

“This is the only way we ever see his tax returns.”

“In 1924, Congress put in place this statute, 6103, in our tax law, specifically to investigate conflicts of interest in the executive branch of government,” Pascrell said at the committee meeting, pointing out that the law was passed shortly after the Teapot Dome Scandal. “Following that scandal, Congress wanted a way to examine business ties in the Executive Branch of government. That is the law, Mr. Chairman.”

Unlike all but one Presidential nominee since Nixon, Trump has not released his tax returns to the public (Gerald Ford, the one nominee who didn’t, released a summary). Trump has also, unlike every other modern president, refused to divest from his business holdings.

According to the financial disclosures that he was required to file, however, Trump has a stake in or owns 564 businesses, corporations, limited partnerships, or limited liability companies (LLCs) around the world. Many of his businesses work in or with foreign countries. Those dealings almost certainly put Trump in violation of the Constitution’s emoluments clause.

Without his tax returns, however, the true extent of Trump’s financial entanglements is unknown.

“There is not one person on this committee who can say absolutely that there is no economic relationship between the President of the United States and investments in Russia. Not one. Because we don’t know,” Pascrell said in the committee meeting. “Let’s do our job. This is checks and balances, Mr. Chairman.”

The power to request the tax information rests, in the House and Senate, with the respective committee’s chair. That means with a Republican majority in both houses, Republicans decide whether or not to use the law.

Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-TX) made it clear what he thought of Pascrell’s request on Monday.

“My belief is that if Congress begins to use its powers to rummage around in the tax returns of the president, what prevents Congress from doing the same to average Americans?” Brady said, telling reporters that Pascrell’s request “misrepresents the legislative intent of that provision, which in fact creates confidentiality and privacy for Americans in their tax returns.”

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George K. Yin, a professor of law and taxation at the University of Virginia and former chief of staff of the Joint Committee on Taxation, told ThinkProgress that Brady was the one misrepresenting the law.

“That’s correct, except he’s confusing that there are two provisions,” Yin said. “The general rule is designed to protect confidentiality and tax privacy. The provision Mr. Pascrell is using is the exception of that provision.”

In Yin’s view — also laid out in a Washington Post op-ed — Pascrell’s use of the law is correct, especially as there are “clear parallels” between Congress and the public’s concerns over corruption and conflict of interest in 1924 and concerns about the Trump presidency today.

“The background of this provision fits almost squarely with this current use of the provision” he said.

And while Brady raised alarms about personal privacy, Brady himself has already voted to use the law to obtain confidential tax records.

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In April 2014 Brady and voted with other Ways and Means Republicans to obtain the confidential tax records of 51 Americans. Then, the use of the law was part of an investigation into the IRS treatment of Tea Party groups seeking tax-exempt status.

“To minimize this request by calling it ‘rummaging’ is the height of chutzpah,” Pascrell responded, pointing to Brady’s own record.

There is also precedent for using this law to publicly release a President’s tax information. In 1974, President Nixon asked the Joint Committee on Taxation to look into his tax records following questions about some of Nixon’s tax claims. The committee then used Section 6103 to make the records public, voting on a bipartisan basis.

In the meeting on Tuesday, however, Pascrell’s request to Brady was again voted down, on partisan lines. Brady responded and said he was voting the measure down because it wasn’t about tax administration; no other Republicans spoke on the matter.

Pascrell wasn’t surprised by his Republican colleagues’ response. He told reporters after the vote that there were three reasons for his colleague’s silence and inaction.

“They’re intimidated, number one. They don’t know the law, number two. And what happens if Mr. Flynn is just the tip of the iceberg — number three” he said, citing Trump’s National Security Adviser, who resigned Monday night over controversies about a phone call he made to the Russian ambassador to the U.S. prior to Trump’s inauguration.

Despite being rebuffed on Tuesday, Pascrell said he’s not going to drop his quest for Trump’s tax returns.

“This is going to come up over and over and over again. I’m good at that,” he told his fellow lawmakers.

He told reporters that he intended to continue submitting documents backing up his legal argument to the committee, and that he is “actively recruiting” Republican lawmakers to support his push for Trump’s tax returns.

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“Nothing has resonated more with the American people” he said. “This is the only way we ever see his tax returns.”

This post has been updated.