WASHINGTON Rep. Nancy Pelosi was emphatic. Mitt Romney’s refusal to release more than two years of his personal tax returns, she said, makes him unfit to win confirmation as a member of the president’s Cabinet, let alone to hold the high office himself.
Sen. Harry Reid went further: Romney’s refusal to make public more of his tax records makes him unfit to be a dogcatcher.
They do not, however, think that standard of transparency should apply to them. The Democratic leaders of the Senate and the House of Representatives are among hundreds of senators and representatives from both parties who refused to release their tax records. Just 17 out of the 535 members of Congress released their most recent tax forms or provided some similar documentation of their tax liabilities in response to requests from McClatchy Newspapers over the last three months. Another 19 replied that they wouldn’t release the information, and the remainder never responded to the query.
The widespread secrecy in one branch of the government suggests a self-imposed double standard. While American politics has come to expect candidates for the presidency to release their tax returns, the president isn’t alone in having a say over the nation’s tax laws. Tax records offer the best chance to see whether the leaders stand to benefit from their own actions.
“Senior public officials, especially members of Congress and presidential candidates, should be required to disclose their tax returns so that the public can monitor potential conflicts of interest,” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, a nonpartisan watchdog group.
The question of taxes is particularly pressing this year, as Congress debates whether to extend all or some of the Bush-era tax cuts set to expire Dec. 31.
Three top Democrats refuse
To Pelosi and some other top Democrats, the focus is on Romney, who’s released his 2010 return and 2011 estimates and plans to release his 2011 return when it’s completed, but refuses to release any more.
“He could not even become a Cabinet member for that lack of disclosure, and now with that lack of disclosure he wants to be president of the United States,” said Pelosi, the House minority leader, who’s from California.
“We’d like to know what’s in those tax returns that he refuses to show to the American public. Did he pay any taxes?” Reid asked in an impassioned speech to the Senate on July 11. Days later, Reid, who’s from Nevada, suggested that Romney’s refusal to release more than two years of tax returns would make him ineligible to serve even as dogcatcher.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, also has harangued Romney for refusing to release more tax returns, calling it a “penchant for secrecy.”
All three refused repeated requests from McClatchy to release their own returns, requests that started before the flap over Romney’s records.
Required financial disclosure
What’s required by law is written by Congress itself, a broad financial disclosure statement that offers no direct information on tax liabilities and no requirement for reporting spousal income other than the source – but not the amount – of any income above $1,000. There’s little way of knowing whether that spousal income is $1,001 or $1 million.
Of the lawmakers who shared their tax returns, most got large deductions for interest on personal and investment real estate. That’s useful information for taxpayers, since a revamp of the tax code is expected in the next few years.
McClatchy isn’t releasing the tax returns under the terms of the agreement with the lawmakers. David Kaz Komolafe and Farah Mohamed contributed.