George K. Yin is a professor of law and taxation at the University of Virginia and a former chief of staff of the congressional Joint Committee on Taxation.
Though our new president may not realize it, #Congress has the power to obtain his tax returns and reveal them to the public without his consent, including returns under audit. As just urged by Congressman Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-N.J.), legislators seeking information on President Trump’s possible conflicts of interest should immediately exercise this authority rather than wait for the passage of new veto-proof legislation — a highly uncertain prospect — that would have the same effect.
The ability of Congress to disclose confidential tax information was added to the law almost 100 years ago. Since the Civil War, when it began requiring taxpayers to submit private information to the government to comply with the tax laws, Congress has struggled to balance the privacy interests of taxpayers with the public’s right to know. Eventually, Congress decided that tax information should remain confidential except in two situations. First, it authorized the president to determine whether any tax information could be disclosed. And, in 1924, it gave the same power to certain congressional committees.
Congress’s right to reveal tax information independent of the president’s authority proved extremely important in 1973 and 1974, when President #Richard Nixon became entangled in a controversy involving his claim of a sizable charitable deduction for giving his official papers to the National Archives. Nixon initially stonewalled the inquiries, including making his famous statement that “I am not a crook.” When the pressure increased, he contended correctly that the IRS had already audited the pertinent returns and not ordered any change.