Legislation that would require the IRS to audit presidents’ tax returns and make reports of the audits public passed the House largely along partisan lines on Thursday, echoing the divide over a bombshell report this week on former President Donald Trump’s tax returns.
Five Republicans voted for the legislation, even though GOP leaders said it was a sham designed to politically damage Trump, who has launched another bid for the White House. Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee released a report Tuesday that showed Trump paid little or no federal income tax while he was in office and that the IRS delayed auditing his returns despite its policy of auditing all presidents.
The lead Republican tax writer in the House, Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), said Republicans could have found common ground with Democrats if their intentions were truly to improve presidential audits, but the legislation instead serves as “a flimsy excuse that for years has been used to justify the political targeting of former President Trump.”
Democrats countered that they wanted to review the tax compliance safeguards for the country’s most powerful person.
Ways and Means Chair Richard Neal (D-Mass.) said the bill “will preserve the integrity of the executive and our system of tax and ensure that no one in the country is above the law.”
“Today’s legislation, I repeat, is not about a president, it is about the presidency,” he said.
Brady said releasing Trump’s returns — which is expected in the coming days following redactions of legally protected information — has nothing to do with scrutinizing the efficacy of the presidential audit program, which has been an IRS policy since the Watergate-era.
“That’s like going to the doctor and being told your private medical records must be released in order to be examined,” he said. “And then you would quickly realize someone just wants to release your medical records and any excuse will do.”
The 222-201 vote came two days after the Ways and Means Committee reported that the IRS did not initiate an audit of any of the returns that Trump filed while in office until April 3, 2019, the same day Neal first requested six years of Trump’s tax returns and any audits of those returns from then-IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig.
Democrats said the agency’s handling of Trump’s returns required Congress to step in and legally mandate the examinations. At the same time, it allowed them to keep the spotlight on their disclosure of Trump’s scant federal income tax payments.
The legislation would require the IRS to produce an initial report within 90 days after a sitting president files returns, provide periodic updates on the status and give an estimated time for completing the audit.
The IRS would have to produce a report no later than 90 days after the audit’s completion detailing any adjustments or problems arising from the examination.
While the presidential audit proposal seems doomed this year, Rep. Adrian Smith (R-Neb.) — a candidate to chair Ways and Means next Congress — suggested that Democrats and Republicans could start over in January with a bipartisan effort to ensure the integrity of the presidential audit program.
But he said Congress shouldn’t rush to publicize tax information that is otherwise protected by privacy laws.
Others were less charitable.
Rep. Jason Smith (R-Mo.), another contender for chair along with Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.), warned on Tuesday that he could use the same obscure law Neal did to spring Trump’s tax returns against members of President Joe Biden’s family.
Biden has been releasing his tax returns while in office, but House Republicans have indicated they would like to launch probes of Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, for his foreign business dealings.