Since Watergate, every major-party presidential nominee has voluntarily released at least some of his or her tax returns to the public. Some have been more transparent than others – Hillary Clinton has set the bar pretty high by posting nearly four decades’ worth of returns online – but every Democrat and every Republican have acceded to some level of disclosure.
This year, Donald Trump is putting these norms to the test. Though the Republican had previously vowed to release the materials, the presumptive GOP nominee has since made up excuses to keep his returns hidden, and has even suggested he’s prepared to ignore the longstanding tradition, even if that gives the impression that he has something to hide.
Maybe voters will be alarmed by his secrecy, maybe they won’t, but what if Trump didn’t have a choice in the matter? The Washington Post reported late yesterday on an interesting new proposal pending on Capitol Hill.
The Senate’s sharpest-tongued privacy advocate has proposed a law to force presidential candidates to release their tax returns within days of securing their party’s nomination.Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden’s bill would require presidential candidates to release at least three years worth of their tax returns within 15 days of being officially nominated at their party convention, applying a legal requirement to something Wyden argues has been standard practice for over 40 years.
“If you are a major party’s nominee to be the leader of the free world, Americans have said ever since Watergate that you don’t get to hide your tax returns,” Wyden said. “It ought to be the law.”
The Oregon senator added, “I don’t believe the public should have to believe the boasting or take somebody’s word for it. Nominees have traditionally released a lot more – [three years] ought to be used as a starting point.”
The bill is called the “Presidential Tax Transparency Act” (S. 2979), and it’s already picked up two co-sponsors: Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
To be sure, some of this is academic given the circumstances. The bill is unlikely to pick up Republican support this year, and it would probably even face some resistance from liberals like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who’s been reluctant to meet the disclosure requirements Wyden’s bill would mandate.
But putting aside legislative projections, does the idea have merit?
Much of what’s expected from presidential candidates is the result of tradition: in recent decades, those seeking the nation’s highest office are supposed to provide the public with some basic health information and tax returns. This has evolved into a democratic norm, not a law.
But there’s no reason lawmakers couldn’t add some formality to the process. For example, we already require candidates, by law, to make financial and fundraising disclosures. They have no choice in the matter. Candidates preferring to shield the materials from public scrutiny can either follow the disclosure laws or they can stop seeking elected office. Full stop.
If Americans have come to believe tax returns are of comparable significance, there’s no obvious reason to make it optional.
Keep an eye on Wyden’s bill, because even if it fails to gain traction in this Congress, it may spark a debate that keeps the issue alive for a while.