Mitt Romney is under fire from Democrats on Capitol Hill – and "friendly fire" from some Republicans – to release more of his income tax returns. Should members of Congress, or at least congressional leaders, be expected do the same?
If you ask congressional members themselves, the answer you’ll get is a resounding double-standard no – or merely maybe.
Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, is drafting legislation that will require all presidential candidates to release 10 years of tax returns and to disclose overseas accounts. The measure is prompted by Mr. Romney's "stunning lack of transparency," he said in a statement.
Will he propose extending that standard to members of Congress?
“I’m looking at that,” he said in a C-Span interview to be broadcast on Sunday.
Romney has released his 2010 return and promises to release the 2011 return, but he has rebuffed calls to release returns from further back. "None of the tax returns are required by law to be put out," he told Fox News. “What is required by law – the financial disclosure – has already been made." President Obama has released tax returns from 2000-2011 and posted them on his campaign website.
It wouldn't be the first time that Congress held the president and members of the executive branch to a higher standard than it holds itself. When Congress passed ethics legislation in 1978 to correct abuses of the Watergate era, lawmakers exempted themselves from key provisions, including "revolving-door" restrictions on lobbying former colleagues.
Congress also exempted itself from the 1966 Freedom of Information Act – an exemption that extends even to commissions created by Congress, such as the so-called 9/11 commission.
For a time, senators routinely submitted their tax returns in a sealed envelope delivered to the ethics committee, to be opened only if needed to inform an investigation. But the shift of financial records online ended even that practice.
"In an Internet age, those documents will be everywhere instantaneously," says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University. "A sealed envelope in the Senate is different than having tax forms circulating throughout the world, uncontrolled and unedited."
Unlike tax returns, financial disclosure forms for member of Congress are imprecise and requires members only to provide information within great ranges of income or assets, such as (no joke) $1 million to $5 million or $25 million to $50 million.
All Republicans and nearly two-thirds of Democrats in National Journal's most recent Congressional Insiders poll said that lawmakers should not have to disclose their tax returns.
When McClatchy News recently surveyed members of Congress, only 17 of 535 lawmakers agreed to release their most recent tax return. Nineteen declined. Most did not respond.
Asked at last week why members of Congress don’t hold themselves to the standard as presidential candidates, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said: “Some people think the same standard should be held for the ownership of the news media in the country, who are writing these stories about all of this. What do you think of that?"
Republican House Speaker John Boehner, asked the same question, declined to answer.
"There is a lack of transparency in Congress overall," says Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "It's very hard to make a determination of how much stock a member really owns."
"Tax returns tend to be a lot clearer," she adds. "Overall, we want to know the assets that any public official holds, so we can determine if they take actions that have more of a private benefit than a public benefit."
Levin, who says he has released seven years of tax returns, says he felt an obligation. "I felt a need to put my returns out because of the role I may play in tax reform," he told C-Span's Newsmakers.
As for requiring colleagues to do the same, he wants first to talk to both Republicans and Democrats. "This is not a partisan issue," he says. "I'd like to put in legislation that came from a bipartisan consensus and discussion."