WASHINGTON — Congressional leaders were defiant Thursday that Capitol Hill lawmakers should not release their tax returns – even as Democrats kept demanding Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney release his.
"When I run for president of the United States, you can hold me to that standard," House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who refuses to disclose her returns, told reporters during a tense news conference.
A day after McClatchy reported that most members of Congress refused repeated requests to release their tax returns, Pelosi talked at some length about why Romney, who has released 2010 returns and says he will release 2011 data when it’s ready, should release even more returns.
“If you release them you tell a story,” she said. “If you don’t release them you leave it up to the imagination of anybody who wants to talk about it to talk about it.”
But she reacted testily when asked whether she and members of Congress should abide by such rules.
“There are no rules. There are no rules. There’s no rule about releasing his tax return, so what rules are you referring to?” she asked, growing clearly frustrated. Asked about the standard she had cited for a presidential candidate, Pelosi said, “It’s up to the American people. The American people are the judges of that.”
After being questioned about why her demand for more transparency from Romney shouldn’t apply to Congress as well, she briefly changed course and said the issue of tax returns was not important.
“The tradition that was honored by this same person’s father," Pelosi said, recalling how George Romney released his returns when he ran for president in 1968. "Now I’m not here, this is not important to me, let me say this: What’s important to me are jobs and the rest,” Pelosi said.
Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, had a terse response. “I’ve never released my tax returns. That’s my private business, just like it’s your own private business,” he told a news conference.
Boehner called the furor over returns a “sideshow . . . the American people are asking the question where are the jobs. They’re not asking where are the tax returns.”
Over the last three months, McClatchy asked all members of Congress to provide their tax data. Seventeen gave their returns, or provided similar documentation of their tax liabilities. Nineteen including Pelosi would not disclose returns. Most did not respond.
Moves were afoot Thursday to increase disclosure, but not necessarily for members of Congress. Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan, the top Democrat on the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, is preparing legislation requiring presidential candidates to disclose 10 years of returns. He is studying whether to include members of Congress and congressional candidates. Levin’s Website features five years of his tax returns.
In the Senate, Assistant Majority Leader Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Sens. Al Franken, D-Minn., and Carl Levin, D-Mich., want all members of Congress, candidates for federal office and any federal employee to file disclosure forms to report annually on a financial interest in a country considered a tax haven.
Lawmakers now must annually file financial disclosure forms, but experts criticize those forms for often being too vague. The forms contain ranges of income, making it difficult to pinpoint someone’s worth. And there’s no direct information on tax liabilities.
Durbin has released his tax returns annually since he arrived in Congress 30 years ago, and he plans to disclose his latest returns this week. Levin released his 2011 returns this week.
Pelosi, though, ridiculed any push for full release of returns by Congress.
“Maybe they (returns) should all be made public, maybe it should be a public function. What do you think of that for everybody?” Pelosi asked. “For everybody who writes about it, for everybody who hires people who write about it, the corporate ownership of the media and what are they doing as far as their taxes are concerned.
"Let’s not be silly," she said. "It’s up to (Romney) to take the consequences of not doing it, or doing it, but not to deflect (the issue) to say, ‘Well, if he has to do it, why doesn’t everybody else have to do it?’”
Pelosi answered her own question. “Because everybody else is not running for president,’’ she said, “and that’s the last thing I’m going to say about it.”