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Blog Post | July 17, 2020

Oversight of Congressional Oversight: Assessing the House Ways and Means Committee

Congressional Oversight

This piece was first published on January 31, 2019. This version reflects updates made on July 17, 2020.

Last fall, Democrats ran and won on an anti-corruption platform. The Revolving Door Project (RDP) is committed to ensuring that members of the new majority fulfill their promises to bring accountability to Trump, his powerful allies, and corporate bad actors. Oversight is an incredibly powerful tool that can shine a light on overlooked issues, unearth answers about clandestine misbehavior, and generate consensus around reforms.

Unfortunately, Richard Neal (D-MA), the Chairman of the powerful House Committee on Ways and Means, has already retreated from his earlier promise to request Trump’s tax returns expeditiously. Since Neal’s alarming decision became clear, we have worked diligently to make the case that his aversion to conflict with Trump and powerful corporate interests is wrong and that his hesitancy to conduct stringent oversight is of broad public concern.

  • RDP immediately elevated and condemned the Chairman’s retreat.
  • Then, in this piece in the American Prospect, we fully explained why we think Neal’s decision to delay requesting the President’s tax returns is so wrongheaded.
  • Neal’s sluggishness is most concerning because Ways and Means has the jurisdiction to conduct wide-reaching and impactful oversight, as we demonstrate with this initial list of issues that we believe warrant committee investigation.
  • As we argue here, Neal’s decision not to request Trump’s tax returns has also signaled weakness to other potential subjects of oversight in this administration, like Treasury Secretary Mnuchin.
  • In late January, Neal offered a defense of his actions, but as we make clear here, his case is staggeringly unconvincing.
  • Following a report in early March that Neal would request the President’s tax returns in the coming weeks, we cautioned against viewing this latest development too optimistically. In addition to the continued lack of urgency (there is no reason that the request could not have already been made) Neal has indicated that he will not request the President’s business returns without which it will be impossible to gain a complete picture of his financial ties. That is not just our opinion; Steven Rosenthal of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center and Trump’s hand-picked IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig (in 2016, when he was a private tax lawyer) have argued the same.
  • We elaborate on the case for requesting Trump’s business returns, illustrating why they are not only important to this investigation, but also to any future oversight of wealthy tax cheats.
  • RDP, along with a coalition of good government and progressive groups sent a letter to Speaker Pelosi calling on her to push the Ways and Means Committee to exercise more stringent oversight.
  • The end of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s two-year-long Russia probe confirmed the long held suspicion that Mueller did not understand assessing Trump’s finances for either crimes or signs of foreign entanglement to fall within the scope of his investigation. As we argue here, this confirmation makes Neal’s sluggishness in requesting the President’s tax returns even less acceptable. Neal must recognize that he is the American people’s only hope for understanding their President’s complicated and potentially illegal financial ties, and he must act without delay.
  • In late May, RDP’s Jeff Hauser provided comment for a piece in the Intercept on the dangerous bipartisan agreement that seems to have been the culprit behind Neal’s delays. Rather than focusing on requesting Trump’s tax returns, it seems that Neal was hammering out a bill that carved out a relatively obscure but long sought after safe harbor for retirement annuities. This move allows employers to lower their costs by choosing riskier retirement vehicles while shielding them from liability should those plans collapse.
  • Even after officially submitting his request in April, Neal continued to drag his feet. Starting in early June, RDP was one of the few voices drawing attention to the fact that Neal was not suing to enforce the Ways and Means Committee’s subpoena for Trump’s tax returns. In a piece for ReWire.News we offered a theory to explain Neal’s persistent delays: Nancy Pelosi’s desire to sideline any actions that might throw additional fodder on the impeachment flame. Over the following month this argument gained widespread traction.
  • In August, a whistleblower approached the Ways and Means Committee with evidence of “‘possible misconduct’ and ‘inappropriate efforts’ to influence an IRS audit of the president.” The committee alerted the judge in the tax returns case to the whistleblower’s existence and offered to brief him on their allegations. The judge, thus far, has not requested more information. Meanwhile, the whistleblower’s existence has been all but forgotten. RDP’s Jeff Hauser criticized this quiet approach in September saying, “The House Ways and Means Committee must figure out a way to make the public aware of the serious cause to worry that the IRS might have been corrupted by Trump.”
  • In its Trump v Mazars decision the Supreme Court held that Congress’ right to subpoena the president is not absolute but did not reach a conclusion as to whether the subpoenas in question were permissible. Instead, the Court remanded the case to the District Court for further, lengthy litigation. The end result is that Congress and the public are unlikely to see Trump’s financial records before November. Revolving Door Project was quick to emphasize how Richard Neal’s sluggishness in early 2019 was at least partially responsible for this outcome. Had Neal moved more expeditiously, the case could have plausibly been before the Court much earlier, leaving time for follow-up litigation in case the Court was similarly indecisive.

Our efforts to shine a light on this issue may have helped encourage progressive advocacy organizations and members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus to weigh in. They definitely encouraged further investigation into Neal’s background, most notably into the hefty donations that he has received from the mysterious Votesane PAC, which turns out to be a front for the real estate industry. Tom Steyer, founder of NextGen America and Need to Impeach, has also taken up the cause, although he is advocating that Neal go even further. On February 4, Need to Impeach began running an ad in Neal’s district that called on the chairman to not only request the tax returns, but also to vote to begin impeachment hearings.

In the coming months, the Revolving Door Project will be offering suggested investigative agendas for several other key House committees, as well as offering guidance on how well Committees seem to be performing their oversight responsibilities. To learn more about this “oversight oversight” and other work, sign up for the Revolving Door Project newsletter here.

Congressional Oversight

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