Our Opinion: Neal pursues tax returns in name of democracy

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House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, who represents the Berkshires, is a man who has accomplished a fair amount during his 30-year tenure in Congress while remaining largely anonymous to all except his constituents. Now, in his new leadership position, the forces of history have thrust themselves upon him. As with so many elected officials in the past who suddenly find themselves in the national spotlight due to the march of events, Mr. Neal has emerged as a solid, honest player in a circumstance that, were he a higher-profile partisan zealot, could easily devolve into chaos.

Rep. Neal is one of only three members of the House with the authority to demand President Trump's tax returns, and on Wednesday he did just that — putting to rest accusations of foot-dragging by the more militant wing of the Democratic Party. He had indicated previously that he wanted to construct an airtight defense for his request of the IRS, which he knew would certainly face a challenge from the White House, perhaps all the way to the Supreme Court. Democrats took control of the House in January, so Mr. Neal's need for three months to get his ducks in a line on a question of this magnitude is not unreasonable.

Rep. Neal's statement in the wake of his demand reveals a thoughtful approach to his role. It carefully lays out Congress' authority under the Constitution to conduct oversight of agencies, and to determine whether the IRS, in particular, is properly carrying out its responsibilities. Indeed, Mr. Neal is relying upon supporting language in this effort: The law says that the IRS "shall" furnish tax returns of any American upon his request, not "may," "ought to" or "think about."

Rep. Neal has kept the scope narrow — consistent with the law — including the past six years of the president's personal tax returns as well as those of only three of his businesses — one of which is of central significance because it concerns the trust wherein Mr. Trump has placed many of his holdings and is most likely to reveal violations of the Emoluments Clause, if such exist. This is no "witch hunt."

In the closing paragraph of his statement, Mr. Neal lays out his motives in unequivocal language, with the full knowledge that his perfectly legal actions have exposed him to unrelenting and withering attacks from Trump partisans. Its brevity and clarity bear repeating: "My actions reflect an abiding reverence for our democracy and our institutions, and are in no way based on emotion of the moment or partisanship."

It's as though Congressman Neal were writing for posterity, and indeed he is. His words are also unprecedented: This is the first time in American history a congressional committee has had to demand access to a president's tax returns.

The president created this situation by breaking the tradition of presidential candidates publicly releasing their tax returns. Notwithstanding the final outcome of Mr. Neal's request, the voting public ought to press President Trump to honor his original pledge to release his returns well before the next election should he become his party's nominee.

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