RollCall analysis finds Members of Congress aren’t transparent about their own taxes

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For centuries in Washington, the primary principle around government has often been simple: “transparency for thee, but not for me.” As Roll Call reported this week, Congressional lawmakers want President Trump’s tax returns but won’t release their own.

In the most comprehensive reporting we’ve seen on the availability of Congressional returns we’ve seen this year, Stephanie Akin and Sean McMinn looked for what was publicly disclosed and then systematically contacted every Member to see what was available — and then followed up with the offices, again and again.

The result is a database of that includes tax returns, if released, notes about the reporting and where the Member stands on disclosure. It also shows how many officers didn’t comment on a basic question of transparency that the public is now considering about candidates for high office in the executive branch.

This story is also a terrific example of how a news organization can combine shoe leather and data reporting in a way that doesn’t just drive a single narrative story but creates a public resource that will continue to inform the public and other reporters in the months ahead.

We asked Roll Call a couple questions about the story and the reporting behind it. Akin’s answers follow.

How hard was it to assemble the database? Aside from your findings regarding declining or ignoring the requests, how many Members of Congress voluntarily, proactively disclose their returns?  Do any do so in a machine-readable format, to ease analysis?

Akin: It wasn’t so much hard as it was time-consuming. We sent emails to every member of Congress, plus their Chiefs of Staff, press secretaries, and communications people. Then we followed up several times over the course of a few weeks. We also searched for press reports and archived campaign websites documenting which members had released returns in the past. We had to search each member individually, paying special attention to years that they were involved in campaigns.

A very small percentage of members voluntarily, proactively disclose their returns. We came up with only four who do this: Schumer, Gillibrand and Stefanik post them on their websites. Durban puts his in his annual financial disclosures.

Comer, one of the six additional members who gave us his returns, said that he plans to post his on his website from now on. I’m pretty sure they were all PDFs. Other members who have released their returns or some portion of them tend to do it during campaigns, when there is some competitive advantage to doing so. I think members in robust media markets are also more likely to release theirs because some regional news organizations routinely ask every candidate for theirs. This seems to be more common in gubernatorial races than Congressional one for some reason, but that’s just anecdotal.

Does your reporting reveal any patterns in deductions or the ways Members structure their finances to take advantage of laws? Are there any conflicts of interests revealed in stocks, bonds or real estate holdings?

We had three tax experts review the returns we received to help us spot information that would not be included in personal financial disclosures. They pointed out that members with more interesting returns probably weren’t the ones who shared them, so the answer to both of these questions is no. We pointed out in the story that some members’ returns provided information about that would not be available in their financial disclosures.

What’s next

As we explained last fall, the public can learn a lot from a tax return. That remains true in 2017, whether an elected official is in Congress or the White House.

Sunlight has repeatedly called on President Trump to release his tax returns and said that Congress should mandate disclosure of the tax returns of presidential candidates.

To date, neither the House nor Senate has shown any appetite for doing so.

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