File this one under “bad idea.”
There’s a chance Washington may follow California’s lead by enacting a new election law. This one requires presidential and vice presidential candidates to provide copies of their last five tax returns if they want to see their names on the state primary ballot.
Sen. Jeannie Darneille was co-sponsor of last year’s proposal, and she has some hope to revive it, hinged on fellow Tacoma Democrat and new Speaker of the House Laurie Jinkins. But the Legislature would have to act quickly via an emergency clause to get ahead of Washington’s 2020 presidential primary, which has been moved up several weeks to March 10.
If you think this is a partisan arrow aimed right at President Trump, then bullseye. As Darneille told us this week: “We need something that will test the president’s veracity.”
We get it. When then-candidate Trump bucked four decades of precedent by hiding his tax returns beneath the fig leaf of an IRS audit, alarm bells went off.
Do we think the president has something to hide? You bet. Is that something an inflated claim of personal wealth, foreign investments that demonstrate a conflict of interest or proof that he’s profiting mightily from his time in the Oval Office?
All these unknowns could be made plain with a deep dive into Trump’s tax documents. It’s why the U.S. House Ways and Means committee subpoenaed the last six years of his personal returns, plus those of eight companies that he owns. To date, the administration has refused to comply.
California decided to circumvent congressional oversight with what officials call an “incentive” law, but it looks more like extortion: “Hand over your tax returns or prepare to die a slow, political death.”
Federal law makes these records confidential for a reason. What if employers started demanding applicants disclose their returns using the same logic?
Darneille calls these slippery-slope arguments “spurious,” but to us they’re serious. What’s to stop lawmakers, out of political motivation or vengeance, from coercing candidates to give up anything from mental health records to sealed juvenile court files?
We already have a fairly thorough vetting process. Presidential campaigns last years, not months. Voters are privy to extensive interviews and debates. By the time Election Day rolls around, most of us are familiar with the candidates and could probably give their stump speeches.
If someone breaks with tradition and withholds financial documents, this, too, is a piece of information voters can and should use. File it under “big red flag.”
States are entitled to control their own ballots, but what California did could have widespread implications. It’s why Trump is clapping back with a lawsuit.
Requiring candidates to disclose tax returns is essentially adding a qualification to the office of the presidency not specified in Article II of the Constitution.
When queried by state lawmakers if Senate Bill 5078 would pass constitutional muster, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson demurred:“Our office stands ready to defend such a proposal should the Legislature enact it. We simply want to be clear that such a proposal would definitely be challenged in court and would face a meaningful risk of invalidation.”
Constitutional criteria for the presidency has been in place since George Washington: A person must be a U.S. natural born citizen, must have lived in the U.S. for 14 years, and must be at least 35 years of age.
The temptation to fatten that short list is understandable. Wouldn’t we all like to see candidates demonstrate a high I.Q., fluency in both domestic and foreign policy, and a broad understanding of both micro and macro-economics?
To that list most would add that a candidate should show a capacity for compassion, take into consideration the diverse backgrounds and perspectives that make up our great country and, yes, refrain from Twitter tantrums when their egos get checked.
But those won’t be found in any tax document; all voters need to do is open their eyes.