As federal policymakers shrink away from their campaign promises to request President Trump’s tax returns, state lawmakers are stepping up to take their place. On January 24, the New Jersey Senate passed a bill that would bar presidential and vice-presidential candidates from appearing on the ballot unless they released five years of federal tax returns. Meanwhile, there is growing momentum in New York for the TRUTH ACT, a bill which would require state tax authorities to release tax returns for any officials elected statewide, from State Comptroller and Attorney General up the ranks through to the President of the United States. That bill now has 78 cosponsors in the NY State Assembly (a majority) and 28 in the State Senate (four shy of a majority).
If passed, New York state tax authorities will be required to release Trump’s tax records within 30 days. Those records would not just include income earned in New York state but worldwide income as well.
While these efforts might seem to be all about Trump, they get at something much bigger than our current President. The American people absolutely deserve to see the current President’s tax returns, but they also deserve laws that better protect them from future ethical disasters.
The President and his outrageous corruption have made clear that our legal system is ill-equipped to guard against conflicts of interest meaningfully. And, at the state level… well, we recommend you learn more about New York’s, er, colorful history, by reading here.
Trump’s example should make filling the gaping deficiencies in our laws, at both the state and federal level, a matter of utmost urgency. House Democrats are attempting to respond to this unprecedented attack on our government with a provision in HR1 (the For the People Act) that requires Presidents to release 10 years of tax returns. Yet, with Trump holding a veto pen backed by Mitch McConnell’s loyal whip operation in the Senate, states cannot merely await a federal ethics cavalry.
That is why it is so encouraging to see these state-level measures. Not only are they helping to alleviate a present problem, but they are also contributing to making our democracy far more resilient moving forward.
Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis influentially claimed that the states are the laboratories of democracy, contributing to a conventional sense that policy moves upwards, from the states to the federal government. Efforts like these also illustrate how interest in federal issues can motivate those working at the state level, where progress in 2019 might be more likely.
Take, for example, the trajectory of so-called “sunshine” or Freedom of Information laws. While “sunshine” laws had existed on the books in a couple of states since the start of the century, they came into vogue at the state and federal level following the Watergate scandals. While some states had enacted open records laws prior to Congress (at least 8), the majority only did so after Watergate took center stage. Far from simply flowing upwards, new ideas for creating a more transparent government bounced from state-to-state, up to the federal government, and back again.
While Democrats have limited legislative prospects with McConnell leading the Senate, they have much work ahead of them. House Republicans’ oversight negligence since 2016 has left the new majority with a veritable mountain of scandals screaming out for investigation.
This oversight has the power to reveal otherwise overlooked abuses in the Trump administration and in corporate America, beginning a process that hopefully ends with accountability. Done well, oversight can also help representatives develop a cohesive narrative about the underlying issues that made such abuses possible. With a deeper understanding of the ailments, if and when Democrats reassume the majority, they will be ready to pass populist legislation. These benefits alone are reason enough to conduct bold oversight.
This work, however, may also push state lawmakers to action. Just as investigations can provide a blueprint for federal lawmakers, so too can they for state-level politicians. Congress may be the victim of partisan gridlock, but that does not mean that all governing must grind to a halt. Congressional oversight will hopefully inspire state lawmakers to act to make our system of governance more resilient moving forward.
The NY TRUTH Act is an exemplar of the sort of bold reform that can occur at the state level. As House Democrats reveal the deficiencies in existing laws, we hope other states will join New York in working to knit together a web of laws that better protect all people.