Tax | Politics | History | Whatnot

Presidential Tax Returns: My Congressional Testimony

On February 7, I testified before the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Oversight regarding the history of presidential tax return disclosure. Here’s an overview, but feel free to read the full testimony if you have time on your hands.

For more than 40 years, American presidents have been making substantial,voluntary disclosures of personal tax information. Since 1977, those disclosures have been annual, with each sitting president releasing a complete tax return, typically in April, shortly after its filing. Disclosures by vice presidents have been nearly as consistent and complete. Major party nominees, while generally restricting their disclosures to election years, have also released at least one complete tax return while running for office, and sometimes many more.

This unbroken string of disclosures ended in 2016, when then-candidate Donald Trump declined to release any personal tax information.

This tradition of voluntary tax disclosure is inherently fragile. By its nature, a voluntary tradition lacks standards and procedures. As a result, it tends to vary and change – and perhaps to weaken – over time. The public release of an individual tax return involves a real sacrifice of personal and financial privacy, and not surprisingly, some political leaders –especially party nominees – have resisted or dragged their feet. Until 2016, all have eventually chosen to comply. But absent clear, binding, bright-line requirements, the nature of that compliance has varied considerably, both in terms of scope and timing. That variability has underscored the vulnerability of the tradition itself.

Indeed, in light of recent events, it seems possible that the disclosure tradition may have come to an end.

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