Rep. Nancy Pelosi was emphatic. Mitt Romney’s refusal to release more than two years of his personal tax returns, she said, makes him unfit to win confirmation as a member of the president’s Cabinet, let alone to hold the high office himself.
Sen. Harry Reid went further: Romney’s refusal to make public more of his tax records makes him unfit to be a dogcatcher.
They do not, however, think that standard of transparency should apply to them. The Democratic leaders of the Senate and the House of Representatives are among hundreds of senators and representatives from both parties who refused to release their tax records. Just 17 out of the 535 members of Congress released their most recent tax forms or provided some similar documentation of their tax liabilities in response to requests from McClatchy Newspapers over the last three months. Another 19 replied that they wouldn’t release the information, and the remainder never responded to the query.
Only one Florida lawmaker — Rep. Corrine Brown of Jacksonville — responded, but she declined to share any tax records.
The widespread secrecy in one branch of the government suggests a self-imposed double standard. Yet while American politics has come to expect candidates for the presidency to release their tax returns, the president isn’t alone in having a say over the nation’s tax laws. Congress also stands to gain or lose by the very tax policies it enacts, and tax records — more than any broad financial disclosure rules now in place — offer the chance to see whether the leaders of the government stand to benefit from their own actions.
“Senior public officials, especially members of Congress and presidential candidates, should be required to disclose their tax returns so that the public can monitor potential conflicts of interest,” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, a nonpartisan watchdog group.
The question of taxes is particularly pressing this year, as Congress debates whether to extend all or some of the Bush-era tax cuts that are set to expire Dec. 31. At the same time, tax returns reveal assets and investments.
Absent tax information, members of Congress aren’t fully transparent, said Daniel Auble, who heads the personal finance project for the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks financial disclosures by members of Congress and appointees confirmed by Congress.
“Having a clearer picture of lawmakers’ interests … is definitely important in making available to the public what possible influence there could be,” he said. “In terms of transparency, it would be helpful to have more information.”
Among those who did disclose their tax returns: Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, the senior Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee and a co-author of the Dodd-Frank law tightening regulations on Wall Street.
To Pelosi and some other top Democrats, the focus is on Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, who’s released his 2010 return and 2011 estimates and plans to release his 2011 return when it’s completed, but refuses to release any more. They say the very refusal to release more suggests that he’s hiding something.
“He could not even become a Cabinet member for that lack of disclosure, and now with that lack of disclosure he wants to be president of the United States,” said Pelosi, the House minority leader, who’s from California.