Our Opinion: Tax returns quest has larger meaning

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Two days before President Trump's Kremlin-style July 4 pageant in Washington, D.C, the House of Representatives filed suit to protect the integrity of one of the pillars of our democracy that July 4 is truly designed to honor. That is in essence what is at stake in the House's effort to force the president to release his tax returns, and by extension, respond to other legitimate demands from the legislative branch of government.

A 1924 federal law states that the Internal Revenue Service "shall furnish" any individual's tax return if they are sought by a chairman of Congress' tax-writing committees. In this case, that would be Rep. Richard Neal, a Massachusetts Democrat whose district includes the Berkshires, and is chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. The law designed to prevent a president from blocking disclosure of his tax returns followed a corruption scandal during the presidential administration of Warren G. Harding.

The Trump administration's Justice Department and Treasury Department claim that the request for the tax returns is illegitimate, which is not the case based on both the law and precedent. The administration then ignored House subpoenas for the tax returns. Hence the lawsuit filed against the IRS and Treasury Department Tuesday in a federal district court in Washington, D.C. by the House. Chairman Neal seeks six years of the president's personal and business tax returns.

The administration rejected earlier requests for accounting and banking records from the Trump Organization on similarly flimsy grounds. Two U.S. District Courts rejected those arguments, and the White House has appealed both decisions. It may be that the Trump administration believes it will also be ordered to turn over the president's tax returns by a court but through a variety of appeals can stall release of the returns through the 2020 election. The president may also believe that should the appeals reach the Supreme Court his two appointees will enable him to prevail by the familiar 5-4 margin.

The president is obviously hiding something or he would have released the tax returns as did his predecessors. The New York Times, having accessed official IRS transcripts of Mr. Trump's federal returns from 1985 through 1994, reported that he lost so much money — more than $1 billion — that he didn't pay taxes in eight of those 10 years. This exposed the myth of Mr. Trump as masterful businessman, which was a key to his candidacy, and he may not want that myth to be further exposed. Mr. Trump's tax returns may also reveal business ties with foreign nations, in particular Russia, that could help explain his coziness with totalitarian rulers like Vladimir Putin.

The president's stonewalling on this and other requests from Congress and his refusal to allow members of his administration to testify before Congress on matters exposed by the Mueller Report have compromised the system of checks and balances designed by the nation's Founders to assure that our democracy runs fairly and efficiently. The total capitulation to the executive branch by Republican congressmen have made them complicit in the weakening of their own branch of government. They are helping to establish a terrible precedent that future presidents, including Democrats, could exploit. Republicans would finally find their voices and start protesting if a Democratic president treated Congress the way the current Republican president does, but they will have lost all credibility.

It is up to House Democrats to save Republicans from themselves and protect our system of checks and balances. The battle waged by Rep. Neal and fellow Democrats to win the release of the president's tax returns is a critical piece of that larger battle.

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