President Donald Trump and House Democrats appear to be headed for a standoff over tax returns that could go on for months — something not every Democrat in the caucus is necessarily on board with.
Some newer moderate members are wary of spending too much energy fighting the White House, adding that they think voters in their districts care more about health care and infrastructure than investigating the president’s finances.
“I think it’s fine for Congress to try to do the job of oversight; that’s part of the job. ... But I personally wouldn’t make it a top priority,” said first-term Rep. Jared Golden, who represents a swing district in Maine.
Golden’s qualms speak to a larger balancing act that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her Democratic chairs are trying to pull off: investigating Trump while focusing on policy issues that won them the House in 2018.
House Ways and Means Chair Richard Neal (D-MA) submitted his formal request for the past six years of Trump’s tax returns to the IRS last week. Although IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig said his agency is working on a letter to respond to Congress’s demands, Neal’s Wednesday deadline for Trump’s returns came and went without the returns being produced. Instead, Neal received a letter from Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin saying his department needs more time to determine whether the request is lawful.
And although members of Trump’s administration have said they’ll “follow the law” without confirming they’ll release the returns, the president himself has refused to hand them over to Congress.
“I would love to give them, but I’m not going to do it while I’m under audit. It’s very simple,” Trump told reporters on Wednesday. (His IRS commissioner later clarified that actually, taxpayers under audit can still release their tax returns.)
Still, not everyone in the Democratic caucus is fully on board to battle the administration for them. “A lot of voters I think are not going to be making this a top priority in terms of how they decide they’re going to vote on 2020,” Golden told Vox.
Golden and others said that while they’re supportive of House committees doing their work, they don’t want to let investigations impede bipartisan work on things like infrastructure — one of the few issues Democrats and Trump could potentially agree on, and one thing they promised voters they would get done.
“The more time we spend on some of these other issues, I think that if we overdo it, we can lose our focus,” said first-term Rep. Jeff Van Drew (D-NJ). “I’m fine with getting his taxes, I’m fine with us asking for them. But let’s not focus tremendous amounts of resources, money, or time in the process.”
Nancy Pelosi is walking a fine line with Trump investigations
Since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reclaimed the gavel in January, she has had to walk a careful line between investigating the president and passing bills to fulfill Democrats’ other campaign promises, including protecting the Affordable Care Act, cracking down on Washington corruption, and lowering the cost of prescription drugs.
While reminding her members not to get distracted by Trump-Russia intrigue, she has also been tenacious in calling for the Trump administration to release the full report from special counsel Robert Mueller and the president’s tax returns. As she pointed out, the law gives the Ways and Means chair the authority to get the tax returns of any individual. And though Mnuchin called Democrats’ request unprecedented and has gotten involved directly, rather than letting the IRS handle it, precedent does exist for Neal’s request; nearly every president since Richard Nixon has released his returns (Gerald Ford declined to release his full returns but released a summary).
Pelosi wants Trump to do the same.
“Show us the Mueller report. Show us the tax returns,” Pelosi said at her press conference last week, hitting the podium for emphasis. “We’re not walking away just because you say no the first time around.”
While investigations are going forward, there’s a high risk/high reward calculus to letting them overshadow bills and other work Democrats have done. They have a fragile majority to protect in 2020, and leadership knows Republicans will hit back hard on tax returns and other investigations.
Democratic leadership and key members of the Ways and Means Committee are projecting a united front on Trump’s tax returns, saying it’s part of the work Americans elected them to do, and adding that the rest of the caucus is behind them.
“The response I’ve been getting has been very supportive from people across the spectrum,” Rep. Dan Kildee (D-MI), a member of Ways and Means, told Vox. “We’re not going to stop doing the job we were elected to do because we’re fearful of being attacked for it. Sometimes you have to do hard things, and I think most people understand that.”
While some moderates are fretting about kicking off yet another fight with the White House, others have no qualms with Ways and Means going all in on Trump’s tax returns. One first-term member told Vox he thinks making the president’s tax returns available to Congress is in line with one of Democrats’ signature policy priorities: the sweeping anti-corruption bill known as HR 1 that they recently passed. The bill would require the president and vice president to disclose 10 years’ worth of tax returns, and require candidates for president and vice president to do the same.
“If you run for president of the United States, you should release your tax returns,” Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) told Vox. “If Republicans are concerned about the law that clearly does allow committee chairmen to ask for this — if they think it goes too far — I’d be happy to trade that law for their support for requiring all presidents to release their tax returns, which is in HR 1. That would be a good compromise.”
House Democrats are trying to be strategic with their investigations. But Trump is making it difficult.
If it feels like House Democrats are seriously ramping up their investigations into Trump in just the past couple of weeks, it’s because they are.
The past few weeks have seen a flurry of activity: In addition to requesting the president’s tax returns, other committees began authorizing subpoenas to look into everything from White House security clearances to the Trump administration’s attempts to put a citizenship question on the census.
As Vox’s Tara Golshan recently wrote, there’s a reason this is all happening now. Democrats have been spending the past few months asking the Trump administration to willingly comply with their requests. But they have been denied every step of the way.
Pelosi and her committee chairs wanted to make sure they’re not rushing into things, and the House speaker recently praised Neal and other chairs for being “thoughtful” and “evidence-based.” Committee Democrats have even weathered criticism from some accusing them of being too slow.
Now, having built their case that it’s necessary, House Democrats are ready to get tough about their oversight requests.
As Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-MD), who chairs the House Oversight subcommittee on government operations, put it to Golshan, oversight in the Trump era is a “balancing act.”
“We aren’t going to conquer Rome in a day,” Connolly said. “I think we need to try to make a public case and bring as much of the public along with us in terms of why we are doing what we are doing and what we are doing.”