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Blog Post | January 28, 2019

Richard Neal Doth Protest Too Much

Congressional Oversight

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-MA) has been criticized by many, including us, for his failure to pursue Trump’s tax returns in a timely manner. In an article in the Berkshire Eagle with the friendly title, “Neal lays groundwork on push for Trump tax returns,” Neal gave his constituents his side of the story.

Below, we annotate Neal’s claims.

BERKSHIRE EAGLE: Not if, but how. U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal said congressional staffers are mapping grounds for him to request President Donald Trump’s federal tax returns, shaping the legal argument best able to overcome an expected court battle. “I intend to ask for the president’s tax returns, as soon as the case is documented,” Neal said Tuesday in an interview with The Eagle’s editorial board that also touched on the partial government shutdown, contentious Washington politics and his new leadership of the House Ways and Means Committee.

REVOLVING DOOR PROJECT: Contrary to what Neal implies here, this is not a new issue. It has been almost three years since Trump stated that he would release his tax returns. As he has repeatedly refused to fulfill that promise, the questions about his financial background have only mounted. There are credible concerns, for instance, that the president is beholden to foreign interests. While civil society organizations and journalists have been unable to get the president’s returns, they have uncovered an extensive trove of alarming information about his financial ties. It is unclear, therefore, what more Neal believes is necessary to document before moving forward.

BE: Two weeks into his role as that panel’s chairman, Neal, 69, said he wants to be “methodical and judicious” as he moves toward putting a request for the president’s tax returns to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, a Trump appointee.

RDP: It’s worth noting that the statutory grant of authority to the Ways and Means Committee includes no indication that a “case” must be made, let alone “methodically,” in advance of a request. Statutorily, this is not a complex process;  the letter requesting the tax documentation could be one to two sentences. What do these words “methodical” and “judicious” even mean in this context? Even if one errantly believed the process more complicated than indicated by the statute, one has to wonder why Neal’s team did not begin this work earlier, as Neal was first already the committee’s ranking Democrat as the party became more and more likely to secure the majority last year.

BE: Staff with the Joint Committee on Taxation are at work researching the historic precedent for requesting the president’s tax returns. Neal said that authority might date to the Teapot Dome oil-fields bribery scandal of the early 1920s, which ensnared the administration of President Warren G. Harding.

RDP: Experts had already weighed in on this issue, starting before the Democrats had even won back the House. Based on the assessment of George Yin, a Law Professor at the University of Virginia and former Chief of Staff for the Joint Committee on Taxation, the case is straightforward.

BE: Presidents since Gerald Ford have made their federal returns public. As a candidate and president, Trump initially said he would release his returns, then said an IRS audit prevented their disclosure — and more recently said he doesn’t believe the public is interested.

RDP: Neal seems to fixate on this point, as if the break with precedent is what is most concerning about Trump’s refusal to make his tax returns public. People are not doggedly pursuing the president’s financial information primarily because he is failing to comply with a longstanding norm, but because they might well contain information that has direct relevance to the American people’s bodily and economic security.

BE: “I don’t expect the first letter is going to get the tax documents,” said Neal, a Springfield Democrat who has represented Berkshire County since the state lost a congressional district six years ago. “We are speculating that there will be a long and grinding court case.” He added: “It’s not as though the White House hasn’t seen this coming.”

RDP: If the case will be “long and grinding” — and Trump opposition inevitable, regardless of any “methodical efforts” Neal anticipates undertaking — how does delaying its inception promote the fastest possible resolution? Court cases take the same time if one delays filing them as if one does not, although arguably this delay means the eventual court case will move more slowly, as it’s hard to argue to a court that a situation is urgent and requires an expedited review the longer one waits to initiate an action.

BE: Neal declined to predict what could be learned through release of the president’s tax returns. He promised to make public the argument that his office will submit to Mnuchin in support of the call for documents.

RDP: Wouldn’t making this argument publicly via hearings be the way to “lay groundwork” in a “methodical” manner?  What is the committee waiting for? It’s late January, and no hearing on this issue has been put on the calendar for January or any month in the future.

BE: In the meantime, Neal’s powerful committee invited Mnuchin to appear before it Thursday to discuss the impact of the partial government shutdown on the U.S. Treasury and on American taxpayers. The shutdown is more than a month old and now is the longest in U.S. history.

RDP: Unsurprisingly, however, given Neal’s trepidation in pursuing Trump’s tax returns, Mnuchin saw Neal as a paper tiger and turned him down.

BE: Neal said he is hopeful that the dispute between Trump and House Democratic leaders over funding for the Department of Homeland Security will work its way toward compromise, perhaps within the week.

RDP: At the time of this interview, House Democrats have done their job and approved a voted to approve a budget ten times. All that remained is what ended up happening — for President Trump and his Senate allies to stand down and let the government reopen. In the meantime, there has been nothing to stop Ways and Means from fulfilling its oversight responsibilities, whether that be requesting the president’s returns or issuing a subpoena to demand that Mnuchin answer for the Treasury Department’s involvement in seemingly extra-legal activities during the Trump shutdown. Failing to do oversight during a shutdown lest it upset Trump merely offers Trump additional incentive to reprise his “Trump shutdown” intransigence after the current funding arrangement expires in mid-February.

BE: A key development, he said, could be actions by Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, that influence the next steps taken by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on the shutdown crisis. The impasse has cut pay to as many as 800,000 federal employees, half of whom are still required to work.

RDP: This statement is essentially meaningless, making a coherent response all but impossible. But if the shutdown somehow impeded oversight, one hopes for a timely request the week after Trump caved to public opinion and Speaker Pelosi.

BE: “It will allow Speaker Pelosi a chance to make her point,” Neal said of maneuvering this week over the shutdown.

RDP: Speaker Pelosi had already made her point that the President and Senate Republicans cannot be allowed to hold government workers hostage for a passion project, and the American people were right there with her, with 66 percent saying that Trump should approve a funding bill without wall funding. House Democrats could have walked and chewed gum at the same time and done oversight while pushing against Trump’s shutdown hostage taking.

BE: As chair of the committee, Neal can call hearings without having a bill under consideration. He said in an earlier interview that with the Senate and White House still in Republican hands, there is no path to undo the tax bill, which he characterized as a $2.3 trillion raid on the federal government for the purpose of enhancing “concentrated wealth.”

He also faulted another aspect of the tax bill as well: a move to lure back to the U.S. an estimated $3 trillion in corporate profits now held in low-tax nations.

“That hasn’t happened,” he said.

RDP: This would be a good subject for an obvious oversight hearing that could have been organized starting in early November 2018.  When is it going to happen?

BE: “Any economic stimulus produced by the December 2017 tax measure will not be long-lasting,” Neal said. “The sugar high that’s coming from the tax cut is wearing off,” he said.

Neal’s agenda also includes work with the committee to improve use of retirement savings accounts by Americans, noting that half of workers do not participate in a qualified retirement plan. He also is interested in having the Ways and Means Committee explore investments in U.S. infrastructure, such as roads, bridges and airports.

RDP: These are relatively modest proposals for the House of Representatives’ most powerful committee. Rather than focusing on trying to eke out infinitesimal victories, the committee’s time would be better spent pursuing executive branch corruption and the corporate abuse that it has facilitated. After requesting the president’s tax returns, Ways and Means could investigate the IRS’s disproportionate pursuit of low-income taxpayers or corporate tax avoidance, an issue that Neal has paid significant lip service to in the past. These, and the many other suggestions on our suggested Ways and Means agenda, have the potential to immediately combat waste and make the federal government work better for all Americans.

BE: As Neal puts his imprint on the panel, he said he wants to go back not only to the routine of regular order, but seek to restore collegial relationships among lawmakers from opposing parties.

RDP: If the last two weeks are any indication, returning to “regular order” means doing as little as possible. Unfortunately for Neal, Americans overwhelmingly backed Democrats this November because they want a change.

BE: “I’m trying to re-establish some goodwill on the committee,” he said. “I think we’re of the same mind in terms of our respect for the committee.”

RDP: Republican committee members’ refusal to exercise oversight would suggest otherwise. While there is nothing wrong with collegiality, establishing goodwill on the committee should not come at the cost of action. Above all else, Neal should drive his committee to aggressively seek answers on executive branch corruption and corporate abuse for the American people.

Meanwhile, back in DC, Neal is working more concertedly to fight back against growing criticism from those who are displeased with his hesitancy. His arguments, put forward in this Politico piece, however, are no more compelling than those he pedaled to the Berkshire Eagle. Neal calls on the growing number of critical liberal groups to “resist the emotion of the moment,” but he fails to substantiate any of his past comments.

Instead, he doubles down on his position that Democrats on Ways and Means need to tread carefully. Nevermind that some of his colleagues already tried to obtain Trump’s returns using the law in question in 2017, only to be foiled by their GOP colleagues. Or, that the same law has been used successfully to obtain President Nixon’s returns and make them available to the public. Contrary to what Neal has implied in his public comments, this is not a radical maneuver.

He is right that President Trump will likely fight the demand, despite the legal precedent. But, his decision to drag his feet, even as he faces an acknowledged race against the clock, is incomprehensible.

Rather than addressing these very real concerns, Neal offers lame excuses and empty phrases. He will have to try a lot harder to justify his actions if he hopes to escape the ire of his constituents and colleagues. Better yet, he could quit making weak excuses and request the returns. It would surely be easier than trying to defend his current, illogical and indefensible, position.

Congressional Oversight

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