The 2016 presidential election cycle may go down in history as a breaking point for American political normalcy. Over the course of his trajectory from an upstart challenger in a crowded Republican primary to a belligerent and divisive presidential candidate to a President-elect who is surrounding himself with extremist elements of the right wing, Donald Trump has obliterated many of the political norms that Americans had taken for granted.
Who could have imagined even 18 months ago that a U.S. presidential candidate would pledge to prosecute his opponent, publicly invite a foreign nation to hack her e-mails or launch a crusade to delegitimize the media for its reporting on his campaign?
The permanency of the damage inflicted by Trump on American politics remains to be seen. The ultimate success of the war he waged on political discourse virtually assures that others will follow in his footsteps, making it more important than ever to fight to restore the norms that for generations have safeguarded our democracy.
In some cases, this may require enshrining in state law practices that had previously been voluntary or customary. That’s why I am introducing legislation in New York State, the Tax Returns Uniformly Made Public (T.R.U.M.P.) Act, to require presidential and vice presidential candidates to release their income tax returns as a prerequisite to appearing on New York’s ballot. A ballot qualification such as this is within the state Legislature’s prerogative to set, and I believe it’s our civic obligation to do so.
Presidential candidates disclosing their federal income tax returns is a tradition dating back more than four decades — every President since Jimmy Carter has made public at least one year’s worth of returns before taking office. Throughout his campaign, Donald Trump refused to release copies of his return, even as his Republican, Democratic, and third party opponents did so. He repeatedly cited the fact that he was being audited by the IRS, though the agency was quick to point out that “nothing prevents individuals from sharing their own tax information,” even if they are currently being audited.
Meantime, giving the lie to his assertion, he refused to release years of his returns that were certainly no longer under audit.
By the end, Trump’s answer — ignoring the fact that supermajorities of Americans told pollsters that they wanted to see returns — was essentially that nobody cares.
Why is the disclosure of income tax return information so important? As Richard Nixon, of all people, succinctly put it, “[P]eople have got to know whether or not their president is a crook.” (Nixon himself released four years worth of tax returns!)
Tax returns give the American people important insight into a candidate’s financial standing and shine a light on potential conflicts-of-interest. This is especially true of a candidate with complicated business affairs, like the President-elect.
How much does the candidate earn, and from whom? Are they paying a higher or lower overall tax rate than the average American? To whom do they owe money? Have they utilized loopholes in tax laws to avoid or evade paying taxes?
These are pressing questions for voters to have answers for before an election, because unlike members of Congress and federal appointees, Presidents are largely exempt from conflict-of-interest laws.
In the absence of a federal law mandating that presidential candidates turn over their income tax returns, my proposed legislation would be specific to New York and require any candidate for President or vice president who wants to appear on New York’s general election ballot to file at least five years’ worth of their federal income tax returns with the State Board of Elections. The Board of Elections would then redact personal information from the returns and make them available to the public on their website.
A candidate’s failure to file their income tax returns with the Board of Elections would disqualify them from appearing on the ballot in November, and New York’s representatives in the Electoral College would be prohibited by state law from casting a vote for any candidate who didn’t comply with the requirement.
While Trump is the obvious inspiration for my legislation, the disclosure of candidates’ tax returns should not be a partisan issue. A recent CNN poll found that 73% of voters thought that Trump should release his tax returns for public review, including half of the Republicans surveyed.
Even so, I have no doubt that the Trump-led Republican Party will oppose my bill, and the political reality means that my legislation may not be considered if Republicans end up controlling the state Senate. My hope is that this proposal will become model legislation for states with an easier path to enactment. Just one state passing a similar law could have major ramifications for the entire nation, and help restore at least one of the treasured political norms we saw shattered this year.
Hoylman represents parts of Manhattan in the New York State Senate.