Revisiting Presidential Tax Return Disclosure

imjustabillBy Sam Brunson

At this point, it’s pretty clear that the norm of presidential candidates (and, presumably, presidents) releasing their tax returns to the public is dead and buried. Sure, it’s been on life support for some time now (I mean, a significant number of candidates in this race released weak disclosures at best), but Trump’s election without having ever released his returns clearly demonstrates that flouting this particular norm is not a bar to election.

On election day I wrote that Congress should require disclosure from presidential candidates (and, at this point, I would expand that to sitting presidents and vice-presidents), and provided a handful of ideas about how such legislation should look. But my previous post suffers from one significant weakness: I assumed that disclosure was a good thing, without explaining why.

I want Congress to act, but for it to act, we should probably be prepared to tell why such legislation is necessary and in the public interest. Necessary is, I think, an easy question: without legislation, presidential candidates and sitting presidents just won’t release their tax returns. It is no longer the thing that candidates do, and next year, I suspect it will no longer be the thing sitting presidents do.

But why it’s in the public interest is a slightly more complicated question. After all, as Eric Trump pointed out, there’s a certain voyeuristic side to the release of tax returns. Ultimately, some portion of the those who actually look at the returns will be “a bunch of people who know nothing about taxes trying to look through and trying to come up with assumptions they know nothing about.”

I believe that there’s value in the public release of tax returns beyond the voyeuristic thrill of seeing somebody else finances. And I have some ideas for what that value is, but I’m curious what others think. What is the value to the public of seeing a candidate’s tax returns? of seeing a sitting president’s tax returns? Why should Congress make this disclosure mandatory?

N.b.: I’m not interested in what we could have learned specifically from Trump’s returns; I don’t think that finding out about his NOL specifically is a good reason to write a law. Instead, I’m looking for reasons why we should care that the 2020, or the 2024, candidates—whoever they may be—release their returns.

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