Pace of request for Trump tax returns makes House Ways and Means chair a primary target

Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass. and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, in Washington on March 14, 2019. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Anna Moneymaker.

Some progressive Democratic groups are threatening that they could mount a primary challenge to House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal if he doesn't move more quickly to obtain President Donald Trump's tax returns.

The pressure to speed up the request for Trump's returns is laying bare divisions within the Democratic ranks on one of the central issues that helped the party win dozens of seats in the 2018 midterm elections.

"If you want to make an example of an old, out-of-touch insider, he's making himself the obvious first choice at this point," said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which supports Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., among others.

In October, then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told the editorial board of the San Francisco Chronicle that requesting the returns would be "one of the first things we'd do -- that's the easiest thing in the world. That's nothing."

Yet Neal, a Massachusetts Democrat, is taking it slow, arguing that he wants to build an airtight legal case, anticipating that Trump will tell Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to fight the request.

Neal's hesitancy is making him a target of the ascendant left wing of the party, which has challenged establishment Democratic leaders to pursue progressive social and economic issues more aggressively.

Green is also frustrated that Neal hasn't held hearings on the health-care proposal backed by progressives known as Medicare for All.

The PCCC, which claims one million members, was one of Warren's early supporters, campaigning for her first Senate run in 2012 and coining the phrase "the Elizabeth Warren Wing of the party."

On Wednesday, the Revolving Door Project, which is part of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a left-leaning non-profit, along with eight other groups sent Pelosi a letter expressing a lack of confidence in Neal.

"Chairman Richard Neal's term heading the Ways and Means Committee has not commenced in a manner that gives us confidence that under his chairmanship the committee is poised to provide the timely and stringent oversight America's rule-abiding taxpayers deserve," the groups said in the letter.

A House Ways and Means spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment on the efforts to pressure Neal.

Federal law allows the House Ways and Means and Senate Finance Committees and the Joint Committee on Taxation to ask the Internal Revenue Service for the tax returns of any American but some legal scholars believe a request requires Congress to have a legislative purpose, including general oversight.

Congress has released private tax information during the scandals involving President Richard Nixon and during the more recent allegations that the IRS targeted Tea Party groups during President Barack Obama's administration.

Neal has already said it's not a matter of if he requests the returns, but when.

Trump broke with 40 years of presidential campaign tradition in refusing to release his personal tax returns before he was elected, claiming at one point that he was under audit, and at another that it was an invasion of his privacy.

Some Democrats believe his tax returns could reveal shady business dealings.

Last week, Ways and Means member Bill Pascrell, D-N.J., said he expected Neal to make the request within two weeks, but later backtracked and said that the timetable was merely his own prediction.

Neal himself hasn't committed to a time line and reports indicated he might request only Trump's personal returns, rather than include the tax returns of the president's many businesses, which could be more revealing about the Trump Organization's foreign entanglements.

Progressives are frustrated at Neal's pace in preparing the request precisely because they predict a long legal battle ahead, said Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project.

Although legal experts generally agree that the Ways and Means Committee's authority to request returns is clear, that likely won't stop Mnuchin from denying the request. A Treasury spokeswoman said Mnuchin will review any request for Trump's tax returns with department attorneys.

If Democrats have to go to court, that could delay seeing the returns for years.

So every week of delay makes the returns less likely to be revealed before the 2020 election, Hauser said.

Last month, billionaire businessman Tom Steyer ran a two-week television ad campaign in Neal's district calling on him to support impeaching Trump. Steyer was scheduled to lead a town hall in Neal's Springfield, Massachusetts, part of Neal's district, on Wednesday.

A primary challenge wouldn't become a significant threat until next year, and if Neal begins to move speedily to request Trump's returns, it could defuse any momentum such a challenger might have. Neal, in his 16th term, did face a primary challenger in the last election cycle, Tahirah Amatul-Wadud, but handily defeated her with 70 percent of the vote.

Sean McElwee, co-founder of Data for Progress, a progressive think tank, said he believes moderate Democrats sold voters a "false bill of goods" in the midterms with their deliberate speed on Trump's tax returns and other issues.

But he said Neal is not yet among the Democrats he sees as most-ripe for a primary challenger.

"There's plenty of time for incumbent representatives to straighten up," McElwee said. "If we're looking at June, July, August and there's no movement on Trump's tax returns, if I were Neal I'd be worried."

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