PITTSFIELD — Not if, but how. U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal said congressional staffers are mapping grounds for him to request President Donald Trump's federal tax returns, shaping the legal argument best able to overcome an expected court battle.
"I intend to ask for the president's tax returns, as soon as the case is documented," Neal said Tuesday in an interview with The Eagle's editorial board that also touched on the partial government shutdown, contentious Washington politics and his new leadership of the House Ways andMeans Committee.
Two weeks into his role as that panel's chairman, Neal, 69, said he wants to be "methodical and judicious" as he moves toward putting a request for the president's tax returns to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, a Trump appointee.
Staff with the Joint Committee on Taxation are at work researching the historic precedent for requesting the president's tax returns. Neal said that authority might date to the Teapot Dome oil-fields bribery scandal of the early 1920s, which ensnared the administration of President Warren G. Harding.
Presidents since Gerald Ford have made their federal returns public. As a candidate and president, Trump initially said he would release his returns, then said an IRS audit prevented their disclosure — and more recently said he doesn't believe the public is interested.
"I don't expect the first letter is going to get the tax documents," said Neal, a Springfield Democrat who has represented Berkshire County since the state lost a congressional district six years ago. "We are speculating that there will be a long and grinding court case."
He added: "It's not as though the White House hasn't seen this coming."
Neal declined to predict what could be learned through release of the president's tax returns. He promised to make public the argument that his office will submit to Mnuchin in support of the call for documents.
In the meantime, Neal's powerful committee invited Mnuchin to appear before it Thursday to discuss the impact of the partial government shutdown on the U.S. Treasury and on American taxpayers. The shutdown is more than a month old and now is the longest in U.S. history.
Neal said he is hopeful that the dispute between Trump and House Democratic leaders over funding for the Department of Homeland Security will work its way toward compromise, perhaps within the week.
A key development, he said, could be actions by Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, that influence the next steps taken by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on the shutdown crisis. The impasse has cut pay to as many as 800,000 federal employees, half of whom are still required to work.
"It will allow Speaker Pelosi a chance to make her point," Neal said of maneuvering this week over the shutdown.
On Saturday, the president offered a three-year extension of immigration protections for people who came to the U.S. as children without proper authorization. Trump has asked the Supreme Court to find that he holds the authority, as president, to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, begun during the Obama administration. The court Tuesday opted not to take up the DACA issue this term, giving nearly 700,000 people uncertain about their immigration status a grace period of at least several months.
Had the president's offer included a permanent solution to immigrants covered by the DACA program, Neal said he believes compromise would be closer.
"I do think there would be some movement," he said.
Neal, who is in his 16th term, praised Pelosi's leadership amid the dispute, calling her "a pretty good negotiator."
As the shutdown continues, more and more federal workers are struggling financially. Neal said their stories are likely to continue to move public opinion against the president's request of $5.7 billion for border fencing.
"You see pain inflicted on decent people who are trying to go about their jobs," Neal said of federal workers — likening them to political hostages.
"We're going to continue to cast votes to open the government," he said of fellow House members.
Now that he leads Ways and Means, Neal also plans to revisit the December 2017 tax reform bill. That measure passed through two Republican-controlled chambers without use of the legislative process known as "regular order."
As chair of the committee, Neal can call hearings without having a bill under consideration. He said in an earlier interview that with the Senate and White House still in Republican hands, there is no path to undo the tax bill, which he characterized as a $2.3 trillion raid on the federal government for the purpose of enhancing "concentrated wealth."
He also faulted another aspect of the tax bill as well: a move to lure back to the U.S. an estimated $3 trillion in corporate profits now held in low-tax nations.
"That hasn't happened," he said.
Any economic stimulus produced by the December 2017 tax measure will not be long-lasting, Neal said. "The sugar high that's coming from the tax cut is wearing off," he said.
Neal's agenda also includes work with the committee to improve use of retirement savings accounts by Americans, noting that half of workers do not participate in a qualified retirement plan. He also is interested in having the Ways and Means Committee explore investments in U.S. infrastructure, such as roads, bridges and airports.
As Neal puts his imprint on the panel, he said he wants to go back not only to the routine of regular order, but seek to restore collegial relationships among lawmakers from opposing parties.
"I'm trying to re-establish some goodwill on the committee," he said. "I think we're of the same mind in terms of our respect for the committee."
Larry Parnass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.