Robert Charles: Seeking the president's tax returns as 'oversight' is unprecedented -- and pure politics

Whoa! In a radical departure from American legal and political tradition, the chairman of the Democratic-controlled House Ways and Means Committee just demanded the non-partisan IRS produce a Republican president’s tax returns.

The demand is more than audacious. It is transparently political and inappropriate. It is arguably a form of political corruption -- the kind we fight against around the world. Having managed law enforcement and “rule of law” programs in 70 countries for the U.S. State Department, this kind of behavior is what we look out for: politically-motivated overreach. This is akin to Third World behavior coming to America.

The chairman’s demand carries an April 10 deadline and sweeps for his opponent’s personal and business tax records (both current and distant past). It is part of a broader Democratic plan of attack on the president and comes with an implicit subpoena threat, but it has no legal-basis and is -- in a word -- ominous.


Arresting is the naked audacity of such a plainly out-of-bounds congressional demand from a non-partisan agency. Tax returns are by definition treated differently from other documents. Like personal medical records, social security numbers, encrypted passwords, and personal thoughts, specific privacy expectations attach.

That is doubly so when private records may be used for political purposes, as that crosses two live wires that should never cross in a non-corrupt republic. The congressional demand is an implied threat to use legally private records to coerce, embarrass, leverage, impugn, extort or compel a political advantage -- presumably in the 2020 election or through impeachment.

The chairman uses the convenient fig leaf of a 1924 law allowing him to see any tax record with the laughable assertion of non-political congressional oversight authority. Notably, the 1924 law was not intended to leverage tax documents from a president and has never been used to do so. It was not intended to be used for political gamesmanship, intimidation, or excoriation.

Without some criminal predicate, it was never intended to license political use of tax records. In fact, a president has the parallel right in that same statute, then, to request tax records of all members of Congress, governors, state legislators and local authorities of an opposing party. Is this really where the Democrats wish us to go? This would make a mockery of non-political enforcement of rule of law. Nevertheless, last week the Democratic House speaker declared herself on board.

Abuse of power seldom comes in purer extract; it is rarely as clear. This is the dirty stuff of tin-pot dictatorships -- the way people like Putin, Castro, Maduro and other oppressive governments behave.

Let’s be honest: this is not being done as part of nonpartisan congressional oversight. That’s what Americans pay for and expect of their Congress -- to support corrective legislation. This is not for any bona fide legislative purposes unless you lump the Democrats’ disingenuous longing for impeachment into that category.

The ultimate question? When a chairman of the Ways and Means Committee says with a straight face that this is not done for political reasons -- that is, not to advantage his party against a first-term president, just ho-hum oversight -- does anyone buy that?

Both his political friends and foes know that this is pure politics, a crafty ruse and misuse of constitutional and statutory authority for political gain (arguably Exhibit A for political corruption 101). He knows it, too, which is why it took him three months to decide to do it. Shame on the Democratic-controlled House for allowing misuse of oversight authority, misapplication of statute, and such embarrassing political machinations.

What now? The president and Justice and Treasury Departments should resist this crass oversight overreach. The IRS should explain they will not be politicized. The meaning, history and intent of the 1924 law and limits on congressional oversight should be explained to the public. The chairman should re-examine his overtly political, legally indefensible decision and step back from “ends-justify-the-means” political corruption. This falls into the category of “so obviously wrong it hurts re-election.”


Of course, federal courts should again prepare for yet another round of congressional Democrats stretching and misapplying law and misusing power and position. The American public is tired of this use of non-partisan processes for partisan ends. The Democratic House is again outside the wire, asserting oversight powers it does not have for political ends it should not seek.

Be vigilant. Average Americans should think hard about what their Congress is doing -- and where such overreach leads. In a phrase, nowhere good.