House Democrats have devoted themselves to a pledge to investigate President Trump at every turn, but when it comes to releasing his tax returns members are preparing for what could be a slow road ahead.
Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee face a dilemma that is already familiar in the first weeks of their majority. Members generally agree that the public has a right to see the tax entanglements of a president. Things get trickier when it comes to who should be demanding those returns and how quickly they should force what is likely to be a confrontation with the administration over the issue.
There is a mechanism, known as the “committee access” provision, that allows the tax writing committee to request tax records of any taxpayer from the secretary of the Treasury. It is unclear how the agency will respond to that request and whether it will stall or resist efforts to turn over Trump’s personal returns to the panel.
On Thursday, the committee will take its first small step toward a resolution when it holds a narrow hearing on the laws related to presidential and vice presidential tax returns.
Ways and Means Committee member Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., says the subcommittee-level session, set to include academics and think tank scholars, is cautious but necessary. “This is our first real crack,” Pascrell said. “We have a responsibility. You either live up to the responsibility or you don’t.”
Pascrell has been pushing committee leaders for more than a year to use their authority to view private tax returns. Republicans refused to participate, so now, Pascrell says, Democrats have a duty to act, despite threats of legal action from Trump.
Pascrell insists he believes committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., will go the full distance to request Trump’s returns within “two to three months.” But all signs from leadership point to a slower, more deliberative process.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., told reporters Wednesday that while Democrats are serious about their constitutional responsibility to investigate Trump, they aren’t going to be reckless when they do it. “We will not be bullied by the president of the United States,” Jeffries said. “That said, we’re not going to overreach, we’re not going to overinvestigate, we’re not going to overpoliticize our constitutional responsibilities.”
Asked specifically whether he plans to make Trump’s tax returns a top priority, Jeffries responded with a different list of legislative goals like lowering health care costs, introducing an infrastructure plan and “cleaning up corruption.”
That approach is shared by some moderate members on the Ways and Means Committee. Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., a former prosecutor, said he wants to defer to special counsel Robert Mueller when it comes to requesting sensitive documents like private tax returns, to avoid interference with that investigation.
“First of all, there’s no rush,” Kind said. “I gotta believe that the Mueller team already has their hands on the president’s tax returns. If they’re looking for a possible connection between Russia and his family, there is a danger in trying to go too far too fast.”