WASHINGTON — Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid repeated his unsubstantiated charge Thursday that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney hasn’t paid taxes in 10 years, a claim that political watchdogs blasted as irresponsible hearsay.
Reid took to the Senate floor Thursday and proclaimed, “The word’s out that he (Romney) hasn’t paid any taxes for 10 years.”
But it was Reid, a Nevada Democrat, who initially put the unproven word out. He told The Huffington Post that an unidentified Bain Capital investor told him that Romney didn’t pay taxes for 10 years.
“Let him prove that he hasn’t paid taxes, because he hasn’t,” Reid said on the Senate floor Thursday.
Reid, who refuses to release his own tax returns, has refused to provide proof of his Romney tax claim and hasn’t revealed the identity of the person who allegedly gave him the information. Nor did he explain how someone who invested in Bain, which was Romney’s firm, would know the details of Romney’s personal income taxes.
In a radio interview with Fox News' Sean Hannity on Thursday, Romney said it's time for Reid to "put up or shut up."
"Harry's going to have to describe who it is he spoke with because, of course, that's totally and completely wrong," Romney said. "It's untrue, dishonest and inaccurate. So I'm looking forward to have Harry reveal his sources and we'll probably find out it's the White House."
Some experts on political language and civility said they were aghast that someone in the political leadership of the country – not a bomb-throwing back-bencher – would level such a serious charge without providing any proof.
“He shouldn’t be making statements like that in public. If you do, produce the evidence or produce the person (who provided the information) in public,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center and co-founder of FactCheck.org, a political fact-checking Website.
“We need a new category to define inappropriate content. ‘Hearsay’ is good. What he (Reid) said would not be admissible in court as evidence,” she said.
While Jamieson criticized Reid’s remarks, she said, “There’s a legitimate public interest in Romney releasing his tax returns, because his tax plan could affect people like him.
Romney has released his 2011 tax returns and an estimate of his 2012 returns with a promise to release the final return when it is filed.
Carolyn Lukensmeyer, executive director of the nonpartisan National Institute for Civil Discourse at the University of Arizona, said Reid’s remarks are indicative of “a level of insinuating character assassination” that’s becoming all too common in today’s politics.
“We’re actually degrading our institutions,” she said. “It’s incumbent on the political parties to back up what they said.”
Romney’s campaign Thursday likened Reid’s statements to 1950s anti-communist scare tactics employed by the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
“This reminds me of the McCarthy hearings back in the 1950s,” Romney adviser Eric Fehmstrom told Fox News on Thursday. “And it was another son from Massachusetts, Joseph Welch, who finally asked the question that should be asked of Harry Reid, which is, ‘Have you no sense of decency, sir? Is there nothing that you won’t do in the name of dirty politics?’ I think it’s just shameful.”
Reid aides said he has no intentions of amending or walking back his Romney remarks.
“He stands 100 percent by his comments,” Reid spokesman Adam Jentleson said. He added that Romney is breaking a precedent set by his father, the late Gov. George Romney, R-Mich., who released 12 years worth of personal tax information when he ran for president in 1968. “It’s a legitimate question about what he’s trying to hide,” Jentleson said.
Most candidates for president since the elder Romney have released multiple years’ worth of tax returns, though few have followed the precedent of 12 years. President Barack Obama in March 2008 released seven years of tax returns. Republican rival John McCain in 2008 released two years of tax returns.
Reid was one of the hundreds of members of the Senate and the House of Representatives from both parties who refused requests from McClatchy to make their tax records public. Only 17 of the 535 members of Congress released their most recent tax forms or provided similar documentation of their tax liabilities in response to requests over a three-month period.
Reid sees no hypocrisy in him complaining about Romney while he refuses to release his returns.
“He’s not running for president,” Jentleson said. “Romney’s father set the precedent, the level of scrutiny should be higher.”
Reid is no stranger to controversial statements.
In 2007, he declared the war in Iraq “lost” while U.S. troops were still in harm’s way.
He called President George W. Bush a “liar” in a December 2004 interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in response to a Bush administration plan to move nuclear waste to Nevada’s Yucca Mountain.
In May 2005, he called Bush a “loser” moments before the president was landing in Latvia on a foreign trip.
In August 2008, Reid told The Las Vegas Review-Journal that he “can’t stand John McCain.” He made the remark after learning that the Arizona Republican senator and 2008 Republican presidential candidate had invited Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, to speak to the Republican convention.
In October 2008, Reid said, “A major insurance company – one with a name that everyone knows that’s on the verge of going bankrupt. That’s what this is all about.” The comment caused stocks to fall sharply that day amid fears of a major insurance company going broke.
Recently, Reid quoted Bryce Harper, a 19-year-old rookie sensation for Major League Baseball’s Washington Nationals, in responding to a question about Senate Republicans’ position on the DREAM Act, which would allow young people who came to the U.S. illegally as children to stay here if they are in college or go into the military. “That’s a clown question, bro,” Reid said.
“You wonder if Reid has gotten into the eccentric category with the press – a benign category for the press where you get some eye rolling and some latitude,” Jamieson said.