"Democratic war against Trump has exposed another bad law"

  • 8 April 2019
  • NormanL

National Review's David French is no fan of the president. However, Mr. Trump's fight with House Democrats over his personal tax returns has exposed a little known, and very bad, federal law concerning who can see tax returns, and under what circumstances. As French writes:

Democrats and many other Trump opponents are thrilled that House Ways and Means Committee chairman Richard Neal has “formally requested” six years of Donald Trump’s tax returns. At last, they argue, Trump will be forced to be transparent. At last we’ll see the financial information that he’s so diligently sought to hide ever since he launched his race for the White House.

Isn’t this good news? Shouldn’t the nation’s chief executive be transparent about his income and business dealings? Perhaps. But “should” is a much different than “must,” and the lawyer and civil libertarian in me immediately wondered about the legal basis for the Democrats’ request. After all, Trump is still an American citizen and entitled to a degree of privacy, and there is no law requiring presidents to release their tax returns. So, on what grounds did the Democrats demand to see his taxes?

Well, it turns out that federal privacy laws contain a rather wide loophole. Congress, which granted taxpayers relatively strong protections from disclosure to other entities, left for itself a nice little out: On mere “written request” from the chairman of House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Finance Committee, or the Joint Committee on Taxation, the secretary of the Treasury “shall furnish” the requesting committee “with any return or return information specified in such request.”

That’s right. All they have to do is ask. They can have your return, my return, or any political enemy’s return. But don’t worry, the law states that if the return or return information might identify the taxpayer, then it can be provided only when the committee is in “closed executive session.” And we all know that Congress never leaks, and would never dare use private information to launch ruinous politically motivated investigations. After all, there’s nothing but good public servants up on Capitol Hill, right?

It's a terrible law that should be striken from the books immediately. That's not going to happen in this Congress, where such spying serves certain partisan ends. 

But some enterprising member of Congress who believes privacy transcends political necessity will see this law, and many other highly dubious infringements on liberty, are repealed.