New Mexico Senator Tom Udall has been on a months-long mission to solve one of the enduring mysteries of the era: What’s in President Donald Trump’s tax returns?
Udall, a Democratic member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, sparred with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo over that question—and not for the first time—during a hearing on Wednesday. Udall said Trump’s secrecy surrounding the Helsinki summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin only made that question more urgent. “After Helsinki, don’t you think Americans deserve to know what’s in President Trump’s tax returns and business interests that are intertwined with Russia?” he asked.
“I’m going to stay out of this political circus,” Pompeo replied, adding that the Trump administration had taken steps contrary to Russian interests.
On Thursday morning, Udall was back at it, appearing on MSNBC’s Morning Joe saying he would support legislation to force presidential candidates to publicly release their tax returns. “I think it’s very important that people know if there are conflicts of interest that the president might have, that we clear that up,” he replied. “The easiest thing to do here is just disclose all the tax returns.”
What Udall didn’t mention is that Congress doesn’t need legislation to release the president’s tax returns. If Democrats retake either the House or the Senate this fall members of the tax committees can obtain Trump’s tax returns directly from the IRS by using a provision in federal law that grants those committees special access to help craft legislation.
“Following Watergate, Congress changed the law to eliminate the president’s ability to order a disclosure [of other people’s tax returns],” George Yin, a University of Virginia law professor who previously worked for Congress’s Joint Committee on Taxation, wrote in February. “But it retained the right of its tax committees to do so as long as a disclosure served a legitimate committee purpose. Such a disclosure must be in the public’s interest, and today’s understandable concerns about Trump’s potential conflicts of interest would seem clearly to justify a congressional effort to obtain, investigate and possibly disclose to the public his tax information.”
Democrats are slightly favored to retake the House, and have a remote chance of retaking the Senate as well. In theory, controlling Congress would give them the opportunity to enact their legislative agenda. It wouldn’t be easy: Trump would almost certainly veto any substantive Democratic legislation that reached his desk. With Congress so deeply polarized, Democrats would have an extraordinarily hard time attaining the two-thirds majority necessary to override a veto on most of their key policy preferences. And that’s if they controlled both chambers, which is unlikely.
With ordinary lawmaking off the table in most cases, what’s a Democratic legislator to do? Some want to impeach the president, but the answer may lie in the network of almost four dozen congressional committees, through which lawmakers exercise most of their power. The power to request sensitive documents, subpoena reluctant witnesses, hold high-profile hearings, and even look at the president’s tax returns should give Democrats all the incentive they need to retake Congress.
“Congress in session is Congress on public exhibition, whilst Congress in its committee-rooms is Congress at work,” Woodrow Wilson wrote in 1885, years before entering politics. Lately, under Republican control, Congress in its committee-rooms has been a lot like Congress in session.
Democratic lawmakers held almost four dozen public hearings ahead of the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2009 and 2010; Republicans held only two of them in 2017 during their failed bid to repeal the law, which governs one-sixth of the American economy. While GOP lawmakers hosted tax-related hearings for years in advance of last year’s tax-reform law, they held none on the final legislation. And so far Scott Pruitt, the former EPA administrator, is the only Cabinet member who has attracted bipartisan oversight scrutiny for a seemingly endless series of corruption allegations.
The Russia investigation has been another major target for House Republicans. Earlier this month, the House Oversight and House Judiciary committees held a joint hearing to question Peter Strzok, a FBI counterintelligence agent who took part in the Clinton email inquiry and the early stages of the Russian election meddling investigation. Trump’s allies have seized on Strzok’s text messages with FBI lawyer Lisa Page to claim bias within the FBI against the president. Those attacks culminated in nearly ten hours of public interrogation earlier this month about the texts, which ultimately revealed nothing that would undermine special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
Perhaps the biggest implosion has come from the House Intelligence Committee, which is tasked with providing congressional oversight to the nation’s vast intelligence apparatus in a sensible, bipartisan manner. Since Trump took office, Republicans on the committee have steadily turned it into a partisan weapon against FBI and Justice Department officials for investigating the extent of illegal coordination between Moscow and the Trump campaign during the 2016 election.
So, what could Democrats do with this power instead? Unlike virtually every other major-party candidate since Watergate, the president refused to release his returns during the presidential campaign, claiming that he couldn’t because he was being audited. Many, like Udall, have speculated as to whether the documents would reveal evidence of money laundering or colluding with Moscow. As a result, obtaining the returns has become something of a holy grail for Democrats and liberal activists alike.
By all accounts, Trump’s tax returns are being treated like something akin to a state secret. John Koskinan, who retired as IRS commissioner last year, told Politico even he didn’t have access to them. Under federal law, however, Congress’ tax committees can request a copy of any taxpayers’ returns directly from the IRS, ostensibly to aide in the development of a better tax code. An intrepid legislator could then publicize what they find in Trump’s tax returns by reading them aloud on the floor of Congress, just as Alaska Senator Mike Gravel did with the Pentagon Papers. The Constitution’s Speech and Debate Clause protects lawmakers from criminal and civil prosecution during the course of their official duties. There might be a political price to pay, but if what they find is damning enough, the representative or senator might find it worth the cost.
Trump isn’t the only executive-branch official who could come under greater scrutiny if the Democrats retake the committees. Most of the standing committees have the power to subpoena witnesses and documents, a valuable tool that’s inherent to the legislative process. But with the exception of Pruitt and his cavalcade of scandal, Republicans have largely avoided digging too deeply into the Trump administration’s top officials.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s shady financial dealings, for example, prompted Democratic ranking members on eight different committees to request an ethics probe from the department’s inspector general. House Oversight Democrats have also sought more of his records related to the Census Bureau’s controversial decision to add a citizenship question to the decennial census in 2020. Documents released by the department this week in a lawsuit over the question showed that Ross actively pushed for it to be added, contradicting his earlier testimony before Congress.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s ethics scandals also merit greater scrutiny. Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee called for investigations in April into whether misused his position to politically benefit Florida Governor Rick Scott, and whether the National Park Service is violating its scientific-integrity policy by deleting references to climate change. Zinke has drawn attention from House Democrats for forcibly reassigning some career Interior Department personnel to lesser posts; the secretary remarked last year that he perceived 30 percent the department’s staff to be “disloyal” to the president. Some Republicans have even shown interest in Interior’s buying habits: Oversight chairman Trey Gowdy sent a letter to Zinke in March requesting details on a $139,000 door the department reportedly bought for Zinke’s office.
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson’s lavish spending spree on office furnishings and other professional accoutrement also warrant a closer look. Frank Pallone, the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s ranking member, asked the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in February for more information about the noncompetitive bidding process that awarded a $485,000 contract to a company led by Carson’s daughter-in-law. The next month, Democrats on the Senate Banking Committee grilled Carson about his alleged hirings of unqualified but well-connected political allies.
Looming over all of this is the Russia investigation. House Republicans’ efforts to hamstring Mueller’s investigation have damaged Congress’s ability to probe Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s decision to appoint Mueller as special counsel last year quelled a push among Democratic lawmakers for an independent commission to study what happened during the 2016 election. But a Democratic-led House could opt to assemble a special committee on Russian interference akin to the House Benghazi Committee that Republicans used to flense Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration for five years.
The House Intelligence Committee formally closed its investigation into Russian election interference in March with a widely criticized report that found no collusion between Moscow and Trump, but Democrats could seek to reopen that inquiry if they take the House. California Representative Adam Schiff, the committee’s Democratic ranking member, has criticized his colleagues on the right for stonewalling key requests about certain personnel and their actions. Schiff said in January that Republicans had blocked Democrats’ efforts to probe Trump’s business relationship with Deutsche Bank, to obtain call records and emails from those involved in Donald Trump Jr.’s infamous meeting with a Russian lawyer, and interview witnesses like Ivanka Trump and Natalia Veselnitskaya.
If Democrats manage to retake the House in November, the first question on everyone’s lips will be: “Now what?” Policy proposals like Medicare-for-All, universal college tuition, passing a clean DREAM Act, and abolishing ICE will be front and center. But those are virtually impossible to attain under a Republican president. The true action will be in the committee-rooms, if Democrats are ready to do the work.