- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 2, 2019

House Democrats went to court Tuesday to ask a judge to order the Trump administration to turn over President Trump’s tax returns, starting a legal fight that could go a long way toward settling how much power Congress has to probe the president.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard E. Neal, Massachusetts Democrat, said he was fed up with the Treasury Department’s stonewalling of a subpoena issued nearly two months ago demanding to see six years of returns from Mr. Trump personally and from eight of his companies.

The move thrilled activists who had been wondering about the delay and troubled Republicans who said it “weaponizes the tax code” for political purposes.

Mr. Neal said he felt he had no choice after his April 3 request for the information and his May 10 subpoena went unfulfilled.

“Due to that noncompliance, the committee is now pursuing this matter in the federal courts,” he said.

Mr. Neal said he needs to see the returns to judge whether the IRS is following its own guidance about auditing presidents. Other Democrats say they want to see the information because they believe it contains embarrassing information.

The Treasury Department and IRS, suspecting the latter explanation is the true motive, said they wouldn’t comply with Mr. Neal’s subpoena. They offered briefings and other information on their audit practices if that is what Mr. Neal is trying to learn.

But they said tax returns must be shielded for privacy reasons.

Now the issue heads to the courts, where a judge will be asked to decide how unfettered Congress’ investigative powers are.

Mr. Neal made his request for the returns under Section 6103 of the tax code, which says the IRS “shall” turn over returns when requested by chairmen of congressional tax committees, including Ways and Means.

Democrats say allowing the administration to defy that language would undercut the tax law and would be a blow to Congress’ ability to investigate.

“Permitting defendants to impede the House’s subpoena power would imperil the separation of powers essential to the Constitution’s structure of lawful governance,” the lawsuit charges.

Mr. Neal points out that even Mr. Trump has complained about the IRS’s handling of the audit of his taxes, including speculation that he is being targeted because of his Christian faith. All the more reason Congress should review the agency’s behavior, Mr. Neal said.

Administration attorneys, bolstered by an opinion from the Justice Department’s office of legal counsel, argue that Congress’ power to compel information is limited by its investigative powers, which must be for legitimate lawmaking purposes.

Legal analysts say it’s an open question who will prevail, though the battle likely will take months or even years to play out in the courts.

Mr. Trump has tested the basics of his argument in two other court cases, in which he is trying to prevent financial documents held by his accounting firms from being turned over to Congress. In both cases, the president has suffered defeats.

“To be sure, there are limits on Congress’s investigative authority. But those limits do not substantially constrain Congress,” wrote Judge Amit P. Mehta, an Obama appointee to the district court in Washington. “So long as Congress investigates on a subject matter on which ‘legislation could be had,’ Congress acts as contemplated by Article I of the Constitution.”

Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, said Mr. Trump should prepare for another loss.

“In this case, the law is even stronger on the side of the House of Representatives because Chairman Neal is relying on a clear statute in addition to Congress’ oversight authority,” he said. “The lawlessness of this administration knows no bounds, and courts are needed to force compliance.”

No federal law requires a president to make his taxes public, but it had been a deadeslong tradition of every major party presidential nominee to release them.

Mr. Trump sparked outrage by breaking with that precedent and conspiracy theories about secret Russian interests.

In addition to Mr. Trump’s personal returns, the entities Mr. Neal is trying to subpoena are the Donald J. Trump Revocable Trust, DJT Holdings LLC, DJT Holdings Managing Member LLC, DTTM Operations LLC, DTTM Operations Managing Member Corp., LFB Acquisition Member Corp., LFB Acquisition Member LLC and Lamington Farm Club, which is the ownership structure for the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey.

Congressional Republicans said Democrats filed the lawsuit without asking the Ways and Means Committee to approve the legal step.

Instead, Democrats passed a catchall resolution this year that authorizes committee chairmen such as Mr. Neal to file lawsuits when they believe their subpoenas are being thwarted.

“This is a dangerous course of action,” said Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, the top Republican on the Ways and Means Committee.

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