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Double Standard? Candidates, Politicians And Taxes


All week, Mitt Romney has been battered for not releasing more of his income tax returns. People in both parties have applied pressure. Among the most vociferous: Democratic members of Congress. But in a piece for McClatchy Newspapers, David Lightman and Kevin Hall point out that the very members of Congress chastising Romney for non-disclosure have themselves refused to disclose. In recent months, McClatchy asked all 535 members of Congress for their tax returns, but only 17 provided them. Among those who did not: former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who was asked about this at a press conference today.


REPRESENTATIVE NANCY PELOSI: There are no rules. He - there's no rule about Romney releasing his tax returns. So what rules are we - what rules are you referring to?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Why is the standard different?

PELOSI: It's up to the American people. The American people are the judges of that.

LUDDEN: We'll talk more about the rules of disclosure, such as they are, in a moment. We'd also like to hear from you. If you've run for public office, did you disclose your finances? Why or why not? Call us: 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. David Lightman is the congressional correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers. Welcome.

DAVID LIGHTMAN: Thank you very much.

LUDDEN: So are there rules? What are they?


LIGHTMAN: Pelosi's right on that score. As far as I know, there are no rules about saying that anybody has to disclose these tax returns. There are, of course, financial disclosure rules where they disclose details about their holdings, their income, their outside sources. A lot of people criticize those - independent analysts criticize those financial disclosure forms as being far too vague. And they don't disclose tax liabilities.

LUDDEN: So members of Congress and presidential candidates alike are not required to disclose their tax returns, just the financial...

LIGHTMAN: Not that I know of.

LUDDEN: So - but do they, routinely? I mean, at least presidential candidates.

LIGHTMAN: Yeah, presidential candidates have done this for - going back quite a ways. Members of Congress have not. And as you saw today, we asked Democratic leader Pelosi and then Speaker Boehner later about this: Why don't you disclose? Why - particularly in Pelosi's case - are Democrats holding Mitt Romney to this standard that they themselves won't adhere to?

LUDDEN: You called it a self-imposed double standard.

LIGHTMAN: Oh, I didn't call it that.

LUDDEN: I read that in your article.


LUDDEN: You suggest there's a self-imposed double standard in the article.

LIGHTMAN: OK. Fair enough.

LUDDEN: Tell us more about the responses you got when you were asking for tax returns.

LIGHTMAN: Yeah. Well, not much. I mean, we sent out the letter three separate times over a three-month period. And, in many cases, I would go to offices personally - particularly of leadership - and say: You know, what are you going to do here? And just no response. I mean, Senate Majority Leader Reid, for example - I must have gone in there four times. Are you going to disclose? They would say, no. And I said, well, why not? We'll get back to you. Never did. Others, the same way. So they just don't want to talk about this.

LUDDEN: One representative actually suggested that your publishers and editors should disclose themselves, telling you they have great influence over public policy. Was that fair?

LIGHTMAN: No. And, in fact, Leader Pelosi made that point today: you know, why don't the people who run the media disclose? In fact, she - why don't the writers disclose. We are not public officials. We are not paid by taxpayer dollars. We are not running for public office. That's the difference.

LUDDEN: Why do you think - or maybe I've - has there been much interest in this in years past? Is it - anyone ever thought that there should be a rule for members of Congress?

LIGHTMAN: It comes and goes. It's suggested now and then, but it really doesn't go very far. Different public interest groups have suggested this sort of thing. They just want more transparency, particularly in years when major tax legislation is up, 2001, 2003 and presumably this year and next, when the Bush-era tax cuts expire. Public interest groups would want to know: Are there conflicts of interest? Or what is the self-interest in some of these tax votes? And that's a big reason we want to see these tax returns.

LUDDEN: Because Congress is looking at potentially overhauling tax rates.

LIGHTMAN: That's right. And we want to know: What is the self-interest? I mean, the reasons for financial disclosure to begin with are so we can cite what the self-interest is. Are there any potential conflicts of interest? When should a member recuse himself? If we don't see those tax returns, we don't know what tax breaks they themselves may gain from. We're not asking members to stop making money and to stop taking tax breaks. I mean, they're citizens just like we are. But we want to know: What's your self-interest?

LUDDEN: All right. Let's get a caller on the line here. Rick is in McConnelsville, Ohio. Hi, there.

RICK: Hello.

LUDDEN: What's your story? Go right ahead.

RICK: I ran for state office in 2008, and I happened to be a public employee at the time. So, of course, all of my income is public record, anyway. So it was an easy decision for me to make to make all of my information public. But that is not - the case is currently not that everyone has to do that. So my opponent didn't have to do that. But I think that - obviously, when people are in public office, they're working for the taxpayer. I think we have some rights to know what the investments are and to know what the income is from other sources.

LUDDEN: So your income was public because you're a public - you were a public official. Did you actually go ahead then and also reveal your tax returns?

RICK: Oh, yes. I did. And it was - actually my income was not public because I was public official. My income was public because I was a public employee, and I just happened to be running for public office. I also happened to be an educator at a state institution. So all of my records are public. My personnel files are public record. And, of course, technically, anything - according to our university attorney, anything that we put into writing becomes public record.

LUDDEN: Do you think members of Congress should be required to disclose their tax returns?

RICK: Absolutely, I do. Absolutely.


RICK: Well, because I've - they're working for me. And just like, as when I ran for office, I felt that it was my duty to be as transparent as I could about the sources of income that I have, where my money's invested. I believe members of Congress should be held to that same sort of a duty.

LUDDEN: All right. Rick, thanks for the call.

RICK: Thank you.

LUDDEN: And let's take another, here: Rudy in Dearborn County, Indiana. Hi, there.

RUDY: How you doing?


RUDY: Yeah. I'm currently running for office here in the county, and I've decided I'm going to put my tax returns on my Internet site, you know, rudyhoward.com. I think it will better illustrate my sincereness. One of the things I've talked about is I've been one of the masses out of work for the last two years, and it's one of the reasons I'm running for office and getting involved because I'd like to see change. And I think it'll demonstrate my sincerity and probably cast some differences myself and my opponent.

LUDDEN: Well, because your tax return will kind of show the situation you've been in. Is that...

RUDY: That's right. I've had to liquidate my 401(k)s, you know, to, you know, maintain and survive over the last year or two. And I think it will, A, demonstrate my sincerity of what I've told people is actually true. They can see it in writing. And it probably will also, you know, cast a little bit of a difference between myself and my opponent.

LUDDEN: Are you calling on your opponent to release his, or should that just be up to him or her?

RUDY: Well, I think I'm going to leave it up to him to decide. But if I lead by example, hopefully others will follow.

LUDDEN: All right. Rudy, thanks for the call.

RUDY: Thank you.

LUDDEN: So what - David Lightman, what about cabinet members? We've - I've heard Nancy Pelosi say that, oh, Mitt Romney could not - is that - become a cabinet member. Is the law different there?

LIGHTMAN: Right. Right. Harry Reid has also said that, that the - again, you're - as these two gentlemen said, you're running for public office. You're going to be beholden to the taxpayers. The taxpayers are paying your salary. You're working for them. Why not be transparent? Why not tell them all they need to know about your investments, your income, your liabilities and so forth? I should add, by the way, nobody wants to see their home addresses. Nobody wants to see their Social Security numbers. We understand that that kind of information should and must actually remain private. We want to know what their self-interest is. I'm sorry to keep coming back to that point, but I think it's crucial.

LUDDEN: Now, it made me think also about the recent stories some months back about this insider trade - legal kind of insider trading among members of Congress. Remind us what was discovered. And might that have come out earlier with the tax returns?

LIGHTMAN: Yeah. I believe it was The Washington Post did that excellent series on all the various stockholdings and investments that members had. At the same time, they were voting on measures that, in fact, could have boosted those earnings. And had we seen the tax returns, we might have been able to pinpoint that much, much earlier. And the public, more important, would have been able to pinpoint that much, much sooner.

LUDDEN: All right. Let's get another caller, here. Eric in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Hi, there.

ERIC: Hi. How are you doing today?


ERIC: I love your program, and I always listen. I never get on the radio, though, so I'm glad to get on today.

LUDDEN: Well, we're happy to have you.

ERIC: My opinion is that - I have run for the Board of Education before, but that's got nothing to do with it. It has to do with - this is a democratic republic. The only way this is ever going to work, this experiment in democracy is ever going to work is if there's full disclosure on everything, except for, you know, the most sensitive, you know, military stuff. And if you don't want to disclose something, then why? I mean, is there a reason why you want to - don't want to say something or show something that you feel is embarrassing? If everybody has to do it, then everybody's got to be out there naked.

LUDDEN: And the financial disclosure forms in and of themselves is not enough for you?

ERIC: No, not enough, not enough at all, because they're limited. And they're limited for a reason by the Congress. They limited to a certain point, tax returns or something else. You've got to put everything down on tax returns you're claiming, and that you want to take credit for or not credit for.

LUDDEN: All right. Eric, thanks so much for the phone call.

ERIC: You're welcome.

LUDDEN: David Lightman, what about, you know, how far back, I mean, people have called for Mitt Romney to disclose more than the two years he says is - one is coming, and another one has already been disclosed. I mean, how much is enough?

LIGHTMAN: Yeah, that's an interesting question. Congressman Sander Levin has a bill that he - he doesn't have it yet. He's preparing a bill that would require presidential candidates to release 10 years of returns. Is 10 years enough? Is 20 years enough? I think what's enough - and this is hard to define - is enough to give the public a pretty good sense of where you've been making your money, what you've been investing in throughout your adult life. I don't think anybody wants to see your return from when you were 18 years old and a busboy at the local restaurant. But give us some sense of how you've been earning your money, whatever it takes, be that five years or 20.

LUDDEN: Does that piece of legislation have any legs?

LIGHTMAN: I don't think so. But you never know around Congress. I don't think so.

LUDDEN: All right. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Let's get another caller, here: Cal in Norman, Oklahoma. Welcome to the program.

CAL: Thank you very much.

LUDDEN: Go right ahead.

CAL: Well, it's really pretty simple. If you want to run for public office - and I did 13 times over 28 years and won all 13 times - you reveal what the public wants to ask. That's not complex and...

LUDDEN: Did they ask about your tax returns?

CAL: Oh, absolutely, sure, and everything else in the world. The law in Oklahoma requires financial statements and that kind of stuff, but that really is not revealing when the ranges are so great. So when the press asked, I was honored to tell him how poor I was.


CAL: And I just, as you know, in 2011, like the rest of us, filed our income taxes. My rate - my wife and I's rate was 29 percent.

LUDDEN: Did something bring this up? Was there an issue that brought this up in the campaign, or was it sort of a routine request?

CAL: Well, a million things come up in a campaign. But if you don't have anything to hide, just answer the question, you know? If you're an ax-murder, you shouldn't be running. And if you're ashamed of your tax returns, you shouldn't be running. Just reveal them, and the press will go on to something else, as they should.

LUDDEN: All right, Cal. Thanks so much for that.

CAL: You're quite welcome.

LUDDEN: David, what I feel like I'm hearing here is that there's more - a lot more disclosure at the local level than up in the national office.

LIGHTMAN: Yeah, it sure does, and I like the points that they're making. I mean, we in the media feel that if you're going to put yourself out there in public life and run for office, everything's on the table. I mean, we like to think we have enough discretion that we're not going to deliberately embarrass you, but you have to assume your life is going to be an open book. And if you don't like that, if you can't deal with that, well, don't run for public office. And this tax stuff seems to me basic.

We have the same debate every few years about the health of a candidate. Should their health records be public, for example? And if not, well, why not? If you're running for president - cabinet or a cabinet appointment or maybe a judge, that's one thing. If you're running for local office, it may be another. But that's another debate, here. How far do you go? And I agree with these people. You're going to run for public office, assume everything is going to be out there.

LUDDEN: Now, what about the congressional spouses? Because I was thinking, well, you know, maybe they don't want their spouses' finances out there. Maybe it's not fair. But then I read that there are some who say, actually, that could be quite relevant, and there's calls for that, as well.

LIGHTMAN: Sure. And, again, this is an age-old debate: how detached might the spouse be financially. The assumption, again, is that it's your spouse. You're living together. You're seeing each other. You're all part of the same household - disclose. If you don't want your spouse's income or holdings disclosed, again, maybe you shouldn't be in public office.

LUDDEN: All right. Let's squeeze in one more fast call. Paul, we just have a moment left. You're in Montara, California. Go right ahead.

PAUL: Hello. Here in California, public officials have to file a Form 700 disclosure. I'm in a sort of unusual situation, because my husband and I are in a gay relationship, and whether or not he counts as a spouse or not depends on the status of the decisions on the legality of gay marriage. So whether I need to disclose his financial situation, as well as my own, complicates matters.

With regard to the presidential disclosures that are under discussion right now, I think one of the main reasons that Mitt Romney's campaign doesn't want to show those earlier tax returns is that I'm sure that he's used various tax loopholes. And that would require explaining how the very rich are able to manipulate the tax system in order to gain benefits that the ordinary population - like the rest of the 99 percent of us - don't have access to. And I don't think they want to discuss that.

LUDDEN: All right. And we've got to leave it there. Paul, thanks so much for the phone call. And, David Lightman, as I understand it, you got 17 returns back, but you agreed not to make them public. Is that right?

LIGHTMAN: Yeah, that's right. Again, we wanted to protect the privacy of the Social Security numbers, the names and so forth.

LUDDEN: OK. So we learned a little bit, but not a lot.


LIGHTMAN: A good way of putting it. A very little bit, unfortunately.

LUDDEN: Well, thanks for the conversation.

LIGHTMAN: A pleasure.

LUDDEN: David Lightman, the congressional correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers. He's covered every presidential campaign since 1980. His article, "Most Members of Congress Keep Their Tax Returns Secret," ran today, and you can find it on our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Thanks, David.

LIGHTMAN: Thank you. It's a pleasure.

LUDDEN: Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY with a look at climate change in Antarctica, where glaciers are slipping into the sea at anything but a glacial pace. And Neal Conan returns on Monday. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.