Presidents and releasing tax information

No President prior to Franklin Roosevelt released tax returns. Since that time, Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson did not. President Ford disclosed information, not the returns. A couple of thoughts about tax returns and their publicity.
The IRS has a strict policy against disclosure by the Service of individuals tax return data. Such a disclosure carries a $5,000 penalty against the Government if willful and possible criminal sanctions (as well as administrative) against the employee who does it. The concept is that people will be less than honest on their returns if their information is disclosed to the public. People might pay too much in taxes by padding incomes, or too little by failing to disclose business arrangements that might be shady (mobsters for example).

In our history there have been two schools of thought on this as pointed out in a 2012 IRS study.

“The arguments for and against disclosure of individual income tax information haven’t changed much over time. Former President Benjamin Harrison (his term ended in 1893) said this,in making the case for disclosure in an 1898 speech:

“Each citizen has a personal interest, a pecuniary interest in the tax return of his neighbor. We are members of a great partnership, and it is the right of each to know what every other member is contributing to the partnership and what he is taking from it.”

For an alternative view, here’s Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon, commenting in the aftermath of the 1924 income tax disclosures:

“While the government does not know every source of income of a taxpayer and must rely upon the good faith of those reporting income, still in the great majority of cases this reliance is entirely justifiable, principally because the taxpayer knows that in making a truthful disclosure of the sources of his income, information stops with the government. It is like confiding in one’s lawyer. … There is no excuse for the publicity provisions except the gratification of idle curiosity and filling of newspaper space at the time the information is released.””
This leads to two points of view about Presidential candidates disclosing their tax returns. One view is that we are electing a President and that person should tell the world everything about him or herself, so that we can make a decision about the character and background of the person. The other view is that we already have trouble attracting candidates from the business world as opposed to the political class. Do we want to exacerbate that divide?

As James Madison penned in Federal Paper #10:
“…the smaller the number of individuals composing a majority, and the smaller the compass within which they are placed, the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression. Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens[.]” (No. 10)”

This inevitably leads to the question that all citizens should ask themselves. Would you want the world to see you tax return? The answer from most people is “no”. In a country with 300 Million people who have to decide who should be their leader and without the ability to conduct a person interview with the candidate, do we want the comfort in knowing more about the candidate?

Did Richard Nixon’s tax return disclose his paranoia that led to the Watergate break in? No. Did Bill Clinton’s tax returns disclose his past dalliances with women? No. Did knowing the fact that Mitt Romney gave a greater portion of his income to his church and charity than Barak Obama have any real effect on the outcome of the election? Did not knowing John Kennedy’s or Lyndon Johnson’s taxes have any impact their respective histories?

So, in the end, releasing tax information by candidates seems to have no effect on their qualifications for office, their electability, or their performance when they get there. In other words, its ” the gratification of idle curiosity and filling of newspaper space at the time the information is released.”

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