The Presidential Records Act: Background and Recent Issues for Congress

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The law also requires the IRS to furnish tax returns or return information directly to other congressional committees upon their request. While portions of the tax code may be byzantine, Section f is straightforward: If Congress asks for any tax returns, the IRS must provide them. The legislative history behind the provision is richly described by University of Virginia School of Law Professor George Yin in a recent article. Word of the shady transactions got out in the press, and Congress began a multiyear investigation. At the time, Congress had no power to compel tax returns; the president had to approve any release, including to Congress.

th Congress Accomplishments | House Committee on Oversight and Reform

Around the same time, some members of Congress were also frustrated by their inability to obtain tax information from Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon to determine whether his sprawling business interests influenced his recommendations to Congress on tax policy. Against this background, Congress, via the Revenue Act of , gave itself the power to compel the secretary of the treasury to furnish tax returns upon request. But in enacting the provision, Congress determined that access to tax returns was important for its legislative prerogatives, including gathering information for prospective legislation and performing oversight of the executive branch.

The provision, with some amendments, is still in effect today. In the s, after abuses by the Nixon administration and prior administrations came to light, Congress strengthened the rules concerning tax return confidentiality. For example, the IRS can share tax returns with state tax authorities and with law enforcement agencies.

Congress also retained the power it had established in to obtain tax returns upon request, now codified in IRC Section f. Congress invokes Section f routinely to allow the JCT staff and Government Accountability Office to obtain tax data in bulk for the purpose of analyzing proposed tax legislation and performing audits of the IRS, respectively. Every president, and, indeed, every major party nominee for president, voluntarily released his or her tax returns to the public—until Donald Trump 25 —and no recent president before President Trump maintained such extensive business holdings while in office.

Instead, recent presidents have placed their investment portfolios in blind trusts. IRC Section f also gives Congress the discretion to make tax returns or return information public in appropriate circumstances. A Committees described in paragraph 1. Both House and Senate tax committees have used this authority recently.

As part of their investigations of alleged IRS targeting of conservative groups several years ago, both the House Ways and Means Committee and Senate Finance Committee made certain taxpayer information public as part of their investigative findings. In McGrain v. Supreme Court stated:. In the case Watkins v. United States , it wrote:. The power of the Congress to conduct investigations is inherent in the legislative process. That power is broad. It encompasses inquiries concerning the administration of existing laws, as well as proposed or possibly needed statutes.

The whistleblower complaint, annotated

It includes surveys of defects in our social, economic or political system for the purpose of enabling the Congress to remedy them. It comprehends probes into departments of the Federal Government to expose corruption, inefficiency or waste. As long as Congress has a legitimate legislative purpose, it can exercise its investigative powers. Congress does not need to have a legislative end goal in mind when conducting an investigation—of course, it cannot know in advance what an investigation will uncover—as long as the topic of the investigation is related to issues on which Congress could legislate.

Thompson, a 19th-century case involving a private citizen, the Supreme Court held that Congress has no power to investigate subject matters on which it has no power to legislate.

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While not intended to be an exhaustive list, below are six key reasons why. In addition to his attempts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, Trump also has a long history of doing business with Russian-linked individuals and entities. Notably, the letter did not deny debts or investments from offshore entities that could be ultimately owned or controlled by Russians, a common tactic used by wealthy Russians seeking to move their money overseas.

The Trump administration has also repeatedly tried to blunt the impact of U. These attempts began even before Trump took office, when, in December , then-national security adviser Michael Flynn called then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak to discuss sanctions. International trade policy is another area where the president wields enormous power and where personal financial interests potentially influence his actions.

Over many decades, Congress has delegated tremendous power over trade and tariffs to the president, effectively giving him the authority to negotiate and set tariff rates, subject to certain limitations. Last year, since Congress did not enact a resolution of disapproval, TPA was extended for three more years, through July 1, But the authority over tariffs ultimately rests with Congress.

Congress clearly cannot fulfill this responsibility without the ability to fully investigate payments or other financial benefits flowing from foreign governments to the president and his businesses.


In addition to gifts or cash payments, foreign emoluments could theoretically come in many forms, including equity investments, loans, or loan forgiveness through business entities. That determination is even more urgent with regard to President Trump.

A line-by-line analysis of the report that triggered the Ukraine scandal.

President Trump repeatedly represented to Congress and the American people that the tax plan that his administration pushed through Congress in the fall of would increase his taxes. Believe me. This is not good for me. Numerous skeptics observed that the tax bill included several changes that would be highly likely to benefit the president and his family—including a special new deduction for pass-through businesses such as the Trump Organization; exemptions for real estate from new limits on interest deductions and tax-free exchanges; a substantial reduction in the alternative minimum tax; and a massive cut in the tax on multimillion-dollar estates.

Congress also needs to know to what extent Trump would benefit from making temporary aspects of the tax law permanent—including the pass-through deduction—as Trump has recommended. Doing so could inform Congress as it decides whether to amend the tax law or repeal it in full or in part.

If the president is personally benefiting from his recommended tax policies, Congress could reasonably decide to give those recommendations less weight. To the extent the president is not paying a fair amount of tax for a person of his income and wealth, his returns could also highlight areas of the tax code in need of reform.

State of the Union Address

The president sits at the top of the executive branch, and federal agencies, including the IRS, ultimately answer to him. President Nixon publicly released his tax returns in —setting the modern precedent that Trump has now broken—in order to quell speculation that the IRS was showing him favoritism.


He agreed to pay nearly half a million dollars in back taxes. In normal times, this might be a hypothetical concern. However, President Trump has demonstrated that he has little regard for established norms within the executive branch that protect against abuses of power. Even if there has been no direct interference, Congress must still ensure that the IRS is not treating the president differently or leniently, for any reason. Ensuring that the IRS adequately audits the president is always important—but especially so when there is abundant evidence that a particular president has been less than honest in paying taxes.

Congress is currently considering H. It includes a number of transparency measures to root out corrupting conflicts of interest in government and to empower voters with greater information about candidates—including requiring major party nominees for president and vice president to disclose 10 years of tax returns.

For example, evidence of conflicts of interest or other problematic issues previously hidden from the public could clarify the urgency of the legislation. The review could also inform members of Congress as they consider important details in the bill, including the number of years for which candidates are required to disclose returns and whether they are required to disclose only personal returns or both personal and business returns, for example.

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President Trump has filed the personal financial disclosures required of federal candidates and officeholders—Office of Government Ethics Form e. But as ethics experts have emphasized, those disclosures are far from perfect, and they lack information that would appear on tax returns, and vice versa. They were built for another day and time—not for the complicated financial entanglements of the Trump administration. Furthermore, business entities might not be listed on a financial disclosure if they produced losses and no longer had positive value during the filing period.

They could potentially also reveal strategies for avoiding or evading taxes, including even belatedly disclosed offshore bank accounts.

On his report filed in June , Trump failed to disclosure that he had reimbursed his attorney, Michael Cohen, to cover up extramarital affairs. But it was rarely if ever the case that tax return information standing alone provided the answer to questions we needed to ask. That information needed to be understood in context, compared with other information we had, and viewed as part of a larger picture.

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