Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, speaks during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on June 8. The Supreme Court has cleared the way for the handover of former President Donald Trump's tax returns to a congressional committee after a multiyear legal fight.
Democrats have won a legal battle over their right to copies of Donald Trump’s tax returns, but they don’t have much time to savor the victory.
Republicans are set to take control of the House in January, at which point Democrats could lose the ability to reveal anything about the former president’s taxes.
The law granting Congress access to private tax information allows legislators to make the details public only by submitting them to the full House of Representatives, something that committees usually do with a vote. When Democrats lose control of the chamber, they lose control of its committees too.
Disclosing private tax data outside of the committee process would be a crime punishable by up to five years in prison.
“Trump’s tax returns are a hot potato because holding that information is very sensitive,” Steve Rosenthal, a senior fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, said in an interview. “It’s a federal offense — a felony — for anyone to release that information improperly.”
The Supreme Court last week rejected a final effort from Trump to prevent the Treasury Department from handing over the material, which was first requested in 2019 by Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee. Neal hailed the decision but has given no clue about next steps.
Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.), a Ways and Means member who has been vocal about getting Trump’s taxes, said last week that he and his colleagues would carefully deliberate over what to release.
“We are not allowed to scream to the heavens when we get this document,” Pascrell said on MSNBC, adding that the public has a right to know whether Trump cheated on his taxes or was involved in any corrupt business deals. “It’s confidential. We will decide, one way or the other, what will be made public.”
It’s not clear when the Internal Revenue Service will hand over the documents — or if it already has. Spokespeople for the IRS and the Treasury, its parent agency, declined to comment.
Neal asked for six years of Trump’s personal and business returns from 2015 through 2021, with his committee suing when the Treasury declined to comply. Trump’s lawyers bogged down the case in court, arguing that Democrats had no legitimate legislative purpose, that they only wanted to humiliate Trump, and that the tax disclosure law was unconstitutional.
A federal appeals court sided with Democrats this year, saying Neal had articulated a clear purpose: to find out whether the IRS tradition of automatically auditing the president should be written into federal law, and also whether IRS auditors had enough resources and protection from presidential interference. The Supreme Court decided not to fuss with the lower court’s decision this month.
Neal wouldn’t have to dump the entire cache of material into the public record; he could release a portion of it instead. The documents may be complicated and would likely require expert analysis from committee lawyers for them to make sense to the general populace. Returns can indicate how much income someone received and how much tax they paid in a given year, but they won’t necessarily indicate the specific sources of income.
“I think the expectations are a little bit elevated in terms of what can be found,” Rosenthal said, adding that Neal should have asked for more returns — including from the years before Trump became president, when he would reportedly claim huge losses that he used to avoid paying taxes.
“After he starts running for office, unless Trump was completely nuts, he would have started to clean up his tax returns,” Rosenthal said.
If Democrats head into the House minority without having released anything about Trump’s taxes, Neal will still have the material but will be unable to share it. A source familiar with the process said Republicans would not have access.
Republicans would not cooperate with an investigation of Trump’s taxes. “No party in Congress should hold this dangerous power,” Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), the top Republican on Ways and Means, said last week, describing a tax disclosure law that’s been on the books since the Teapot Dome scandal of the 1920s. “I hope lawmakers who value the privacy of tax returns act to close this massive loophole the courts have created.”
Another option for Democrats would be for the Senate Finance Committee to file its own formal request for Trump’s taxes. Senate Finance shares the same power as Ways and Means, as well as the House-Senate Joint Committee on Taxation, to request private tax documents. Democrats are set to maintain control of the Senate next year and could even gain a one-seat majority if Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) prevails in a runoff election next month.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, declined to say what he might do.
“We’re looking at all the options,” Wyden told HuffPost.
Igor Bobic contributed reporting.