WASHINGTON ― Donald Trump is the first president in 40 years not to disclose his personal income tax returns, and Democrats don’t seem too upset about it.
They could have asked for copies of the president’s tax returns on their first day in control of the House of Representatives on Jan. 3. Instead, they waited until April 3.
Democrats could have gone to court in May after the administration denied their request and defied their subpoena. Now it’s July, and only 18 months remain before a new Congress takes power.
There’s still no lawsuit.
The Democrats’ point man on tax returns, House Ways and Means Committee chair Richard Neal (D-Mass.), says the committee’s lawyers are simply taking their time to make sure the case is as strong as possible.
“We’re close,” Neal told HuffPost last week, but he declined to be more specific.
Federal law gives the Ways and Means chair access to anyone’s private tax information ― all the chair has to do is ask the Internal Revenue Service. Before the November election, Democrats vowed to ask for Trump’s taxes if they won. And Neal has known that the Trump administration would likely refuse to comply with the request, setting up a court battle.
If he’d wanted to, Neal could have made the request on Jan. 3, issued a subpoena as soon as the Trump administration said no, and then filed suit in federal court a week later, according to Jeff Hauser, director of the Revolving Door Project, an anti-corruption initiative of the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research.
“If there were any sense of urgency we would have been where we are now by the middle of January,” Hauser said.
The Trump tax subpoena is just one of at least a dozen House Democrats have issued for documents and testimony from the Trump administration, which has mostly refused to comply. In the past, courts have sided with Congress when it demands information from the executive branch, but appeals can prolong the cases.
“People have lots of things to get frustrated about. I don’t know that this is at the top of the list”
A key difference with the tax return subpoena, however, is that Democrats are asking courts to order compliance with a federal law that explicitly says the Internal Revenue Service is supposed to hand over the requested information ― which means Democrats’ tax case should be even stronger than the others. The back-and-forth letters between Neal and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin have been full of the legal arguments and citations that presumably would go into the lawsuit.
Hauser said he suspected that Neal and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) are in no rush for a legal victory because it would result in a court order forcing the administration to hand over the tax returns, which Trump might not want to do. Several Democrats have said the Trump administration defying a court order would present a true constitutional crisis.
“My view is Pelosi and Neal are trying to avoid a constitutional crisis,” Hauser said, “because they don’t want to impeach him.”
The clock is ticking. A new set of lawmakers gets elected every two years, and once a “new” Congress assumes office the old one ceases to exist as a legal entity, and its subpoenas go away. But even before that happens, when election season comes around, the appetite for oversight may diminish in favor of just winning the election. (Pelosi has been clear she would rather Democrats win the election than impeach, though the two are not mutually exclusive.)
Some Democratic members are getting antsy about the slow pace of the tax return fight, said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), a member of the Ways and Means Committee. But he said they should realize that not even filing the lawsuit sooner would guarantee it gets resolved before 2021.
“Filing the case doesn’t mean that the returns are going to be delivered next week,” Kildee said. “They’re going to string this out as long as they can.”
Another member of the tax-writing committee, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), said the daily crush of Trump administration scandals may have made the tax return issue less relevant.
“People have lots of things to get frustrated about. I don’t know that this is at the top of the list,” Blumenauer said. “Kids in cages. Mueller coming over for testimony. An appropriations process that’s going to be extraordinarily challenging.”
Former Progressive Caucus chair Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said he didn’t want to second guess the Ways and Means lawyers on legal strategy, but he did wish they would get going.
“At some point, you got to pull the trigger,” Grijalva said. “And I think the sooner the better.”