Donald Trump is now presumptive President-elect despite having never released his tax returns. It’s important to not let his example be cited by future candidates to not release theirs. Congress should pass legislation requiring future Presidential and Vice Presidential nominees to disclose ten years of their personal tax returns within two weeks of receiving their Party’s nomination.
In the interim newspaper publishers should adopt a proposal shared with me by Walter Dellinger, former acting Solicitor General in the Clinton administration. Dellinger proposes newspaper publishers agree on their own candidates for President who don’t release their tax returns will not be interviewed by their editorial boards or considered for endorsement.
This proposal could be moved forward by the News Media Alliance who according to their website “is a nonprofit organization representing 2,000 newspapers and their multi platform businesses in the United States and Canada.”
While not being endorsed by the vast majority of the nation’s top 100 newspapers didn’t impede Trump’s ability to win, it is a policy publishers should adopt before the 2020 Presidential election.
The refusal of Trump to release his returns was the first time since the 1970’s a major Presidential candidate hasn’t released them. A history of when candidates began releasing their returns is on the website of the Tax History Project. They report “Presidential candidates began releasing their returns consistently starting in the early 1970’s and in 1978 all presidential and vice presidential candidates were required to release certain financial documents as a result of the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, which required candidates running for office of President of the United States to file a Public Financial Disclosure Report with the Federal Election Commission.”
The question for both the media and voters is what can be learned from a candidate’s tax returns and whether the information is crucial to determining whether they merit support? We know what our own tax returns show. Most of us aren’t wealthy enough to have any great details disclosed however they do show if we have mortgages and who we may owe money too. They may contain a list our stock trades and charity donations, if any. Tax returns provide a window into an individual’s life. While Trump used the excuse of his returns being audited to not release them, nothing legally precluded his doing so, he also suggested everything we need to know about his finances could be found in his required financial disclosure form.
The Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan nonprofit advocating for open government globally and the use of technology to make government more accountable to all, disagrees. They developed a list of the information we can get from both tax returns and financial disclosure forms. From tax returns they say we learn about a candidates; “Yearly income, how much the candidate paid in taxes and the tax rate, what deductions and tax credits they claimed, real estate taxes and abatements, investments, how much the candidate gave to charity (which could shed light on their values and priorities), to whom the candidate owes money , who are the candidates in business with and the financial positions of those companies (whether they have had gains or losses) and they may indicate if money is being held offshore.”
From their financial disclosure forms we learn about: “Outside Income, gifts, assets/property owned, specific investments/trusts, possible conflicts of interest, certain transactions/agreements made with businesses and people, positions held at different companies outside of the government and liabilities.” Taken together we get a fuller picture of the person asking us to elect them President, Commander-in-Chief, and leader of the free world. The Sunlight Foundation adds “It’s important to remember that unlike Congress, presidents are exempt from conflict-of-interest laws.” This fact is something President-elect Trump has already suggested he will use to excuse his mixing business interests with the interests of the nation.
The chance to vote for President every four years is one of the great privileges and responsibilities Americans have in our democracy and one of the most important things we do. By exercising our vote we determine the direction of our democracy.
The United States has both the strongest economy and the strongest military in the world. The consequence is the world watches our elections closely knowing our President becomes the de-facto ‘leader of the free world’. That makes it imperative we gain as much information as possible on the candidates before we vote.
The opportunity to review tax returns is one additional and important piece of information giving us insight into who they are and how they might govern.