Tax Analysts Blog

Here’s Why Bernie Sanders Should Still Release His Tax Returns

Posted on Jun 28, 2016

Bernie Sanders won’t withdraw and won’t endorse Hilary Clinton. He has promised to vote for the presumptive Democratic nominee – and to campaign against Donald Trump. But for the time being, he’s staying in the “race,” determined to boost his leverage within the Democratic Party.

I think that’s fine. But why stop there? Sanders has a chance to do something really useful with his rump campaign: He can release his tax returns for 2015 and years before 2014.

A Sanders release would serve two ends. First, it would repair some of the damage that Sanders (and other recent candidates) have done to the 40-year tradition of return disclosure. Second, it would add to the pressure on Donald Trump to make a similar release.

In a blog post a couple weeks ago, my colleague Ajay Gupta took issue with efforts to pressure Trump – or any other candidate – into disclosing tax returns. Ajay makes some interesting points, and I’ll respond to them more completely in a future post. But for now, let me focus on what I take to be his central argument: that candidates have a right to expect “fair and evenhanded application of the revenue laws,” including laws protecting the privacy of individual tax returns.

I think that’s a straw man -- candidates already enjoy that protection. When they disclose their returns, they do so willingly, if often reluctantly. If they want to take a principled stand against disclosure, they are free to do so.

And I would understand – if not approve. After all, tax disclosures are unpleasant for candidates. But we ask many unpleasant things from presidential candidates, including disclosures about their campaign finances, personal wealth, and medical history. Some of these things are legally required, others voluntary.

In general, I think Ajay and I would probably agree that legal requirements are better than moralistic hectoring. For my part, I would certainly prefer that tax returns be made a mandatory element of the candidate financial disclosures already required by the Federal Election Commission.

But as a practical matter, the law has never – and will never – be able to keep up with voter demands for transparency. It’s a moving target, dependent on the specifics of a particular campaign and its candidates. Consider Hillary Clinton’s much-discussed speech transcripts. No law requires their disclosure. And yet it’s perfectly reasonable for voters (and pundits) to ask for them. Even demand them.

Voters have a right to expect great disclosure from candidates seeking great power. Lawmakers can’t reasonably be expected to anticipate what sort of information may be important in every future campaign. Which is why we have politics – so people can voice their demands and expectations. Hectoring, begging, and shaming may be unseemly, but they are also part of the American political tradition.

One of our most loyal blog readers, Edmund Dantes, weighed in on Ajay’s post, describing the tradition of candidate return disclosure as “bizarre.” That’s a stretch. The tradition arose quite naturally and predictably in the wake of President Nixon’s tax shenanigans.

Since 1976, when Jimmy Carter chose to release his individual tax return, every major party candidate has followed suit. (Just  to be clear, Gerald Ford did not release his return that year, or any other, although he did release a summary of his tax information. He was the last nominee – and president – to insist on the privacy of his complete returns.)

Primary candidates have been less consistent in their tax disclosures, but their releases have become more common over the decades. These days, most serious candidates make some sort of tax release well before winning their party’s nomination.

This year, however, many primary candidates chose not to release. Even worse, several who did make a disclosure chose to release only a Form 1040, which is not a complete tax return. This practice is especially pernicious because it not only flouts the tradition of transparency, but does so while pretending to observe that tradition.

Partial disclosure is no disclosure at all. It devalues real disclosure and dumbs down the transparency tradition to the point of being useless. Ultimately, a partial disclosure obscures more than it illuminates.

The list of primary candidates making partial disclosures this year is long, including Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, John Kasich – and Bernie Sanders. To be clear, Sanders has now – finally – released a complete copy of his 2014 tax return. But for months, he insisted that his earlier, partial release was adequate.

Sanders did considerable violence to the transparency tradition during the interregnum between his partial and full disclosures. His months-long campaign of delay, obfuscation, and misdirection helped weaken the norms of candidate disclosure.

And he’s still at it. In April, while Americans were rushing to file their 2015 returns with the Internal Revenue Service, Sanders was rushing, too – to release his (finally) complete 2014 return to the public.

At various points, the Sanders campaign has promised to release his 2015 return as well. But to date, it hasn't. It hasn't released any pre-2014 returns, either. Instead, the Sanders campaign said in late April that the pre-2014 returns would come only after Clinton released her speech transcripts.

Candidates owe tax disclosure to voters, not each other. If every candidate’s transparency depended on equal or equivalent transparency from every other candidate, we would soon have no transparency at all.

Unless it’s required by law, which it should be. But in the meantime, moral suasion is all we’ve got. So here’s my argument: Sanders should release his 2015 return, as well as several from the pre-2014 years. Doing so would underscore his personal commitment to transparency, while also bolstering the broader tradition of candidate return disclosure.

As an added benefit, a Sanders release would also raise the pressure on Donald Trump to make a similar disclosure. Yes, I am aware that trying to shame Donald Trump into pretty much anything is a fool’s errand – if a candidate has no shame to begin with, then “shaming” is just wasted breath.

Except when it isn’t. Trump will do what Trump will do, but we should still demand that he play by the same (unwritten) rules as every other party nominee for the last 40 years. Failing to defend the tradition of candidate disclosure is the same as abandoning it.

So run, Bernie, run. Stay in the race for another month. Pressure Hillary to stay true to your progressive agenda – and to release her speech transcripts, too.

But while you’re at it, release your own tax returns. Don’t do it as part of a quid pro quo with Hillary. Do it for the voters, who have good reason to be suspicious of politicians and their self-serving agendas. Do it so that every other candidate in every other election for years to come will feel obligated to do the same.

Because laws and legal requirements are good. But so are unwritten traditions of decency, transparency, and openness.

Read Comments (4)

Edmund DantesJun 28, 2016

I believe in the rule of law. I don't believe in the rule of "unwritten" law. That's why I like Clarence Thomas' opinions so much. I don't think candidates should be hectored into obeying unwritten law. I stand by my suggestion that a demand to obey an unwritten law is "bizarre." Trump has fully complied with the financial disclosure law. Those who believe that tax returns are essential as well to evaluating a candidate's fitness for office should simply get the law changed. Easy-peasy. Saying that we can't predict what transparency might require in the future is ducking the real issue.

For my part, I don't care about anyone's tax returns. I care much more about pubic officials establishing family charitable foundations and trading favors with other nations for contributions to the foundation. But that's just me.

Nixon released his tax returns to try to prove he was not a crook. Ultimately, we'd have to say it made no difference to Nixon's fate, did it? Similarly, from today's political perspective, getting Bernie or Donald to release their tax returns will not make much difference. Liberals are desperate to mine Trump's tax returns for damaging information. Those who support him do not care about his taxes. He has nothing to gain, and something to lose, by obeying your unwritten law. I believe he's doing the nation a service by restoring privacy to tax returns. (Provided he sticks to his guns.)

BTW, Clinton using the office of Secretary of State to raise money for the Clinton Foundation dwarfs the "tax shenanigans" that Nixon engaged in by a couple orders of magnitude. Camels and gnats, anyone?

Mr. Gupta has the much better argument so far.

Mike55Jun 29, 2016

The ironic part of all this is that, despite your protests, what Trump has done is fully consistent with the 40 year history of tax return disclosures. Like every presidential candidate before him, Trump carefully weighed each possible disclosure scenario (how much, which years, etc.), then selected the option that would result in the greatest number of possible votes.

You may not like the end result of Trump's analysis (i.e., non-disclosure = most possible votes), but let's not pretend there's ever been a candidate who made the disclosure out of respect for "traditions of decency, transparency, and openness." You more than anyone know better than that, so why pretend otherwise?

Edmund DantesJun 29, 2016

BTW, Mr. Thorndike, was anyone at the IRS ever prosecuted for leaking Nixon's tax returns to the press? Isn't it funny how leaky the IRS is about Republicans, and what a firm stone wall they build for Democrats? And how this politicization never has any consequences? No wonder Republicans want to eliminate the IRS.

Edmund DantesJun 29, 2016

BTW, Mr. Thorndike, was anyone at the IRS ever prosecuted for leaking Nixon's tax returns to the press? Isn't it funny how leaky the IRS is about Republicans, and what a firm stone wall they build for Democrats? And how this politicization never has any consequences? No wonder Republicans want to eliminate the IRS.

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