IRSOne can easily imagine both good and bad reasons for the House Committee on Ways and Means to request President Trump’s tax returns. As U.S. Rep. Richard Neal wrote in his letter to the IRS Commissioner, Ways and Means has a responsibility to ensure that the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) is enforcing federal tax laws “in a fair and impartial manner.” It’s not acceptable to let people exploit their wealth or their political influence to avoid paying their rightful share of taxes.

On the other hand, House Democrats have strong political incentives to dig into the President’s tax returns and expose details that could weaken Trump before the 2020 election. Unfortunately, partisan considerations drive congressional oversight of Presidents. Members of Congress are too slow to investigate a President of their own party and too quick to investigate a President of the other party.

Accordingly, when Congress pursues its investigations of Presidents, it must do so in a way that provides assurance that it is acting in good faith and consistently with a legitimate legislative purpose. In this case, for example, the scope of the request for information should line up with the reasons for the request. If the goal of Ways and Means is to assess whether the IRS is enforcing tax laws in a fair and impartial manner, members of Congress would want to see a range of tax returns, from other very wealthy Americans (say Bill Gates and Warren Buffett) and other public officials (say members of Congress and governors).

 

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