'No-brainer' or no-no? Congress split on probing Trump tax returns

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Congressional Democrats on Friday said the U.S. Congress should obtain President Donald Trump’s tax records to examine possible conflicts of interest, although Republicans showed little interest in taking action.

“This is a no-brainer, for crying out loud,” said Democratic Representative Bill Pascrell, a House Ways and Means Committee Democrat who asked the panel this month to request Trump’s federal tax returns from the U.S. Treasury.

The Ways and Means Committee is one of three panels with the authority to subpoena tax returns.

Defying decades of precedent, Trump has refused to release his tax returns. This has made it harder for watchdogs to determine how his actions as president may affect his sprawling business empire, including his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, where Trump is hosting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe this weekend.

Critics say disclosing tax returns would help settle concerns about possible conflicts of interest.

While Democrats say tax committees in Congress should exercise their authority to request Trump’s federal tax returns from the Internal Revenue Service, Republicans who control Congress have shown little interest in doing so.

“I don’t think we can roll all over people just because they’re in a position of government,” said Senator Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican who chairs both the Senate Finance Committee and the Joint Committee on Taxation, the two other panels with the authority to request tax records.

The three committees do not need permission from Congress as a whole to review tax records behind closed doors, according to tax experts and congressional aides. However, they face a higher barrier if they want to make that information public.

“There has to be a legitimate purpose for that disclosure. It has to be in the public interest,” said George Yin, a former Joint Committee on Taxation chief of staff who now teaches at the University of Virginia.

Republicans have asked for an ethics review of one senior White House adviser’s promotion of Ivanka Trump’s products. Democrats say persistent concerns about Trump’s continued ownership of an international web of companies could eventually prompt lawmakers to take action.

Pascrell said Trump’s tax returns will come up for debate as Congress moves to overhaul the U.S. tax code.

“We certainly don’t want tax reform to benefit any particular group, including the president of the United States,” Pascrell told Reuters. “I ain’t going away.”

Writing by Andy Sullivan