Trump ran out the clock on his tax returns. House Democrats let him.
The Supreme Court has ruled on whether or not Congress can get its hands on President Trump's tax returns. The decision in the case, Trump vs. Mazars, is a classic political punt — holding that in theory Congress can subpoena the records, but first various legal matters need to be reconsidered by lower courts. The (certainly intended) result is that the case will be tied up in legal proceedings until after the November election. As the saying goes, justice delayed is justice denied.
However, this is not merely the fault of conservative justices. The Democratic chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Richard Neal (Mass.) effectively collaborated with this strategy of delay by dragging his feet on pressing this lawsuit. And that is only part of how Democrats have basically given up on presidential oversight. The American people will probably not have vital information about Trump's corruption and failures when they vote this November because Democrats have been too timid and cowardly to get it.
Trump is the first president since Jimmy Carter not to release his tax returns, and despite repeatedly promising to do so for years, he plainly never will. As I explained way back in April of last year, the Ways and Means Committee very clearly has the authority to get anyone's tax returns if it so wishes — the language in the law is categorical and there is no exception for the president. Moreover, the justification for doing so is obvious: "people have gotta know whether or not their president is a crook."
Any Ways and Means chair taking his constitutional and moral responsibilities seriously would have filed a lawsuit to get Trump's tax returns on the first day of the new Congress in 2019. Indeed, Congress could have sent the house sergeant-at-arms into the IRS and demanded they be produced — threatening employees with arrest and detention under Congress' inherent contempt powers if they refused.
But Neal didn't do any of that. As Eleanor Eagan and Jeff Hauser of The Revolving Door Project detail, instead he stalled for months, and then only requested the returns from Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin. Neal let more months pass being given the runaround by Mnuchin, only filing a subpoena after Mnuchin finally rejected the request, and only filing a lawsuit when Mnuchin rejected the subpoena. The ensuing legal wrangling ate up nearly a year, leaving the Supreme Court easily able to kick the can down the road past the next election.
All this was easily foreseeable in advance. Why Neal is such a hesitant slug can probably be chalked up to two things: establishment Democrats' general terror of wielding power, and his desire to get bipartisan deals selling out the American people to vested interests — particularly the pharmaceutical and hospital lobbies, who have been big funders of his campaigns. As Daniel Boguslaw writes at The American Prospect, while Neal was dragging his feet on Trump's taxes, he was working with House Republicans to sneak a provision into a retirement reform bill that would provide legal protection for 401(k) annuity plans that rip off workers. Then he helped torpedo an amendment that would have cut drug prices.
Most recently, Neal connived with Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) to gut a measure to address surprise billing. That is when sick or injured people get stuck with gigantic bills (routinely well into six figures) because they unknowingly receive treatment from an out-of-network provider during a hospital visit or surgery. This practice is so incredibly unpopular that even Republicans have expressed rhetorical support for doing something about it, but thanks to Neal and his lobbyist paymasters — including the private equity firm Blackstone, which owns some predatory physician staffing groups — they don't have to.
Neal, of course, is not the only Democrat in the House leadership blanching at the prospect of reining in Trump. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi resisted impeaching Trump for months, and eventually did so on narrow national security grounds — once again leaving his monumentally corrupt business empire off the table. John Bolton, of all people, wrote in his money-grab book that House Democrats were negligent in not expanding their inquiry to other Trump foreign policy schemes. All the other House committees have by and large allowed themselves to be stymied by the administration's petulant stonewalling.
Neither is the pandemic catastrophe getting much oversight. The CARES Act passed back in March, and it contained a Congressional Oversight Committee, which was supposed to keep an eye on the trillions of dollars in funding. Yet more than three months later, it still has no chair, because both the Senate and the House have to agree, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has reportedly been dragging his feet. Again, anyone could have seen that coming a mile off — including Pelosi, who quite possibly welcomed it so that oversight would not kick up dangerously radical demands to do something.
And on Trump's utter failure to respond to the virus itself, aside from a couple milquetoast hearings, Democrats have done little. There have been no detailed investigations into the ignoring of early warning signs, nor the failure to secure enough protective gear, nor the failure to set up a national test-trace-isolate system to contain the spread.
Thankfully, it seems Democratic voters are less and less willing to put up with this grotesque failure to stand up to the most corrupt president in history. Rep. Eliot Engel, the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, recently went down to a progressive primary challenger. Now Neal is facing a serious primary challenge from Alex Morse — the mayor of Holyoke, a smallish city in the district. If the voters of Massachusetts' First District want to do right by themselves or the country as a whole, they'll throw Neal out on his ear.
As for Trump, his incompetent response to the pandemic may very well hand Joe Biden the presidency in November, but he'll only have himself to thank. The Democrats have mostly just watched. If they want to hold on to power beyond the next election, they'll have to do better than that.