Before we get too deep into the weeds today, let's be clear about one point: We believe that candidates for the presidency of the United States should, as a matter of course, release their tax returns.
But we also believe that a proposal before the Legislature that would require candidates for president and vice president to release their five most recent returns before their names could be listed on the Oregon general election ballot represents serious overreach.
And, judging by news accounts about a Senate Rules Committee hearing this week on the measure, Senate Bill 594, other legislators feel the same way. It's not clear at all whether the measure has enough support to pass both houses. (And if it did, it's very unclear whether the measure could survive any kind of legal challenge.)
President Donald Trump's name wasn't mentioned during the hearing, held on Monday (which also was tax day, which increases the sense that this bill is intended in large part primarily as political theater). But it's clear that the bill is all about Trump: He has thus far refused to release his tax returns, breaking a tradition that stretches back as far as Richard Nixon. (Trump has said he cannot release his tax returns because he remains under audit by the Internal Revenue Service, even though there is no rule or law to that effect.)
Trump also has said that he thinks most Americans don't care that much about his tax returns, and that may be true; after all, he won the presidency without releasing them. The president also has said that he believes his tax returns are "boring." This last statement is almost certainly not true.
It's certainly not true for the Democrats in Salem who are pushing Senate Bill 594: "This bill strikes me as one of those things that we never thought we'd have to pass," said Sen. Michael Dembrow, a Portland Democrat.
But Sen. Ginny Burdick, the Portland Democrat who chairs the committee, said the measure faces serious legal questions — although she added that she thinks the measure enjoys substantial support in the Democrat-dominated Legislature. The committee did not vote on the bill during Monday's hearing, so this could be the last you hear about it. Of course, it's also possible that the bill could be considered at any time during the session.
If this sounds familiar to you, it's because the Legislature has considered similar bills in the last two sessions, but they haven't come to a vote. And, in fact, this issue has come before other state legislatures, and has not been signed into law in any of them. (Then-Gov. Jerry Brown of California vetoed a bill along these lines in 2017.)
In the meantime, the fight over Trump's tax returns continues to heat up in Washington, D.C., where Rep. Richard E. Neal, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, has relied on an obscure portion of the federal tax code to request the last six years of returns. Trump administration officials have declined. After Neal's deadline of April 23 passes, expect this battle to head to the federal courts. In the meantime, various congressional Democrats are pursuing legislation mandating candidates for president release their tax returns. (Several of the many Democratic candidates for president have released their tax returns; frankly, all of them should do so.)
In any event, Congress is the proper venue for this debate, not the halls of the Oregon Capitol. If Oregon Democrats are serious about pursuing this, though, they have an option: Senate Joint Memorial 11 would urge members of Congress to take action on the issue. That measure may seem like weak tea when compared to Senate Bill 594, but it has this advantage: It has a chance of passing the Legislature without triggering a raft of litigation. (mm)