Economy & Budget

Democrats demand Romney’s tax returns, keep theirs secret

Democrats demand Romney’s tax returns, keep theirs secret

Congressional Democrats haven’t given the federal government a budget in three years, but they’ve got plenty of time for political theater.  Their latest effort is a bill introduced in the House by Rep. Sander Levin (D-MI) to require presidential candidates (cough Mitt cough Romney cough cough) to release ten years’ worth of tax returns.

“I don’t think there’s any question now in terms of the responsibility of the candidate,” Levin declared. “I think the law ought to now reflect that responsibility.”

The Constitution disagrees, having included no such legal requirement for presidential office.  Changing the requirements in the middle of a presidential race would be even more dubious, to the extent anyone cares about the letter or intent of the Constitution any more.

Congressional representatives are noticeably reticent about releasing the sort of information they’re demanding from Mitt Romney.  A McClatchy article on Thursday noted that “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 the news service.  19 of them flatly refused, while the rest didn’t bother to respond at all.

Among those refusing to pony up was DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, one of the most strident voices demanding Romney’s tax returns.  Wasserman Schultz herself has offshore investments, and a secret second home in New Hampshire.  Clearly she believes different standards of “disclosure” apply to her finances.

Confronted with this astonishing hypocrisy, Wasserman Schultz stammered, “I file full financial disclosure required under the law.”  But full compliance with the law isn’t good enough for Mitt Romney, right?

Most voters would probably agree that more disclosure is better, but running for office should not require the complete sacrifice of privacy rights.  Tax forms are completed with an understanding of privacy between the taxpayer and the Internal Revenue Service.  Mitt Romney has had a long career in politics, but not everyone who runs for high office in 2021 will know they have such a future ahead of them when they fill out their 2012 tax returns.

One reason tax returns are considered private information is the very level of detail that makes Democrats salivate at the thought of getting their hands on Romney’s.  (If he did give them ten years of tax data, and they found nothing politically useful, they wouldn’t suffer any great political damage – they’d just hike their noses in the air and congratulate themselves for doing the right thing in the name of “transparency.”  The Democrats view this line of attack as risk- and cost-free for themselves, no matter the outcome.)

Tax returns are complex and detailed because our tax system is insanely complicated and intrusive.  Tax incentives are offered in exchange for behavior the government finds desirable – or, at least, the government that wrote the tax laws for that particular year found it desirable.  Much of the information for a wealthy individual’s returns is complex to a degree that only professional tax accountants comprehend.  Even the IRS agents have, with some frequency, made errors when interpreting these intricate laws.  But we’re supposed to believe operatives of the Obama campaign are better qualified to judge Romney’s tax liabilities than highly trained accountants and IRS agents?

Old tax returns for someone of Mitt Romney’s wealth, or even successful people with far lower incomes, will be nothing but a formless wad of political clay, to be molded and shaped according to the needs of character assassins.  Their goal would be derailing the presidential campaign by forcing Romney to spend all of his time explaining hand-picked items culled from the most complex passages in a towering mountain of data.  (How many pages would 10 years’ worth of Romney’s taxes run?  It’s got to be close to the size of the ObamaCare legislation, and Democrats passed that without bothering to read it.)

It should also be noted that Mitt Romney probably did not fill out those tax forms personally – although given that Democrats apparently think he could secretly run Bain Capital as an amusing late-night diversion while putting in grueling hours with the Salt Lake City Olympics, they might believe him capable of it.  How many people reading this, having employed professional assistance to prepare their personal or business taxes, would relish the prospect of explaining detailed line items from their 2003 returns?

As long as we’re going to have a gigantic government rooting through our personal lives with an intrusive tax system oriented around rewarding behavior (and now, thanks to ObamaCare, punishing the failure to engage in desirable behavior!) we must all demand some level of respect for the privacy of our tax data.  If a candidate wants to expose it voluntarily, then fair enough… but we must also respect their right to say “no,” if they have met the other required forms of financial disclosure, and their taxes have been duly validated by the Internal Revenue Service.

This should be true of both the pauper and the billionaire.  Americans have already gotten themselves in a lot of trouble by allowing certain rights to attenuate with higher levels of income.  And we really don’t want an electoral system designed to ensure that no one with any degree of private-sector success ever runs for office, because they don’t want political hacks rummaging through a decade of confidential tax information.  We don’t want the Presidency to be an office that only “community organizers” with zero private sector achievement can reasonably aspire to win.

Maybe we could have this discussion again when we have a sane tax system, with returns that fit on a postcard.

Update: Suddenly House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi seems noticeably less eager to carp about Mitt Romney’s tax returns.  As reported by Jonathan Strong of Roll CallPelosi told reporters asking about Romney’s taxes on Thursday, “We spent too much time on that. We should be talking about middle-income tax cuts.”

This marks the first time Nancy Pelosi has suggested cutting anyone’s taxes, middle income or otherwise, so more details of this exciting new initiative will hopefully be forthcoming.

Meanwhile, as news of her remarks bubbled through the Internet, an attempt was hastily made to walk them back, by claiming she just meant she didn’t want to discuss Mitt Romney’s tax returns any further in that particular interview.

That doesn’t seem consistent with what she said, or the way she said it.  In fact, she got rather snippy with the press over the issue of tax returns on Thursday: “Some people think the same standard should be held to the ownership of the news media in the country who are writing these stories about all of this. What do you think of that?”


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