Tax transparency good for Romney – and Congress, too

Congressional leaders are right to call on Mitt Romney to release more than two years of tax returns. But their entreaties would be far more credible if those lawmakers were equally as transparent about their own finances.

They say Romney’s refusal to release more tax records suggests he has something to hide. If that’s the case, doesn’t it suggest the same thing when only 17 of 535 members of Congress agree to release their most recent tax returns in response to a request by McClatchy Newspapers?

None of the top Senate or House leaders – Democrats Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid and Republicans John Boehner and Mitch McConnell – agreed to the disclosure, nor did any members of Washington state’s congressional delegation. In fact, none of them even replied to the request one way or another.

Why does it matter whether members of Congress are transparent or not when it comes to their tax returns?

Well, because these people are making tax policy that affects their own finances as well as everyday Americans’. Do they have any blatant conflicts of interest? Their tax returns also reveal assets and investments – information that could prove helpful to citizens and watchdog groups trying to hold lawmakers accountable for their voting records.

Pelosi, in defending her refusal to release her own tax returns, says she has complied with financial disclosure reporting required by law – which Congress wrote. But what’s required is only a very broad financial statement that offers little information on tax liabilities and how much income a spouse brings to the marital estate. The kind of information disclosed gives little insight, for instance, on how much they would benefit or be hurt by proposed tax plans.

Some lawmakers are pushing for more transparency. In the House, Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., wants to require presidential candidates to disclose a decade’s worth of returns. He’s considering whether to extend that to members of Congress and congressional candidates.

In the Senate, Democrats Richard Durbin of Illinois, Al Franken of Minnesota and Carl Levin of Michigan want disclosure requirements regarding tax havens for members of Congress, candidates for federal office and federal employees.

Those efforts deserve applause. We reserve catcalls for those members of Congress who criticize others for lack of transparency while declining to disclose their own tax returns.