The House Ways and Means Committee has received several years’ worth of former President Trump’s tax returns, according to the Treasury Department.
After a three-and-a-half-year legal battle, Ways and Means Chair Richard E. Neal, D-Mass., has been given access to Trump’s personal returns from tax years 2013 through 2018, along with the returns of five entities that constitute the core of Trump’s businesses.
“Treasury has complied with last week’s court decision,” a Treasury spokesperson confirmed in a November 30 email to Tax Notes.
On November 22 the Supreme Court rejected the former president’s last-ditch effort to block Treasury from releasing the returns. The order from Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. came without public comment or dissent from any justice.
Asked November 30 whether he was in possession of the documents or whether his committee would vote to make a submission regarding the documents to the House, Neal replied simply, “I intend to see this through.”
Under section 6103(f)(1), the Ways and Means Committee can review the returns in a closed executive session. It can then vote to make the information public if it so chooses, as it did in 2014, when it voted to make return information public as part of its investigation into former IRS official Lois Lerner and the agency’s alleged targeting of Tea Party and other conservative nonprofit groups for scrutiny.
Proceed With Caution
“My sense is Richie Neal is being very cautious,” Steven M. Rosenthal of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center told Tax Notes. Without a House vote, Neal cannot disclose any tax return information, and a confirmation that he is in possession of the documents may constitute a disclosure, Rosenthal said.
According to Rosenthal, there are multiple paths Democrats can take regarding Trump’s tax documents. The “gold standard” would be for the Joint Committee on Taxation to fully study the documents and report on its findings, but that could take months, and the Democrats lose control of the House on January 3. The “sensible path” for the Ways and Means Committee would be to report out its submission and attach Trump’s tax documents as an appendix, he said.
“I can see arguments for both cases,” Rosenthal said. While a comprehensive review by the JCT would be good to have, making the documents public would allow crowdsourcing of analysis of the returns, tax information, and IRS working papers, he said.
Another option is to punt the matter to the Senate, which the Democrats will still have control over next year. Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has already said he stands ready to step in if the clock runs out for the Ways and Means Committee.
The courts have already decided the issue, and the code section that empowers the Ways and Means chair to access the returns does the same for the Senate Finance Committee chair. These document requests are made in confidence, so Wyden may already have sought them, Rosenthal said.
Three Years and Seven Months
The House’s battle for Trump’s tax returns began in April 2019, when Neal requested them but then-Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin refused to comply.
A new request was filed in June 2021, stating that the Ways and Means Committee was considering legislative proposals regarding tax laws and wanted to review the effectiveness of the presidential audit program. With a new secretary in Janet Yellen, Treasury said it would comply with the request.
Trump filed cross-claims in August 2021 against the request, arguing that separation of powers still applied after his presidency and that Congress sought the returns for political reasons. Judge Trevor N. McFadden of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed the cross-claims and counterclaims in December 2021. Trump appealed, and arguments were heard in March. The D.C. Circuit affirmed McFadden’s decision August 9.
After the D.C. Circuit denied a motion for rehearing, Trump filed an emergency application for stay of mandate pending the filing and disposition of a petition for writ of certiorari. The Supreme Court granted a temporary stay November 1.
Roberts vacated the temporary stay along with his rejection of Trump’s request, which allowed Treasury to comply with the House’s request.