Tax Foundation of Hawaii president Tom Yamachika recently expressed his opinion regarding the legality and constitutionality of proposals to require that candidates for president and vice president appearing on Hawaii general election ballots have their most recent income tax returns posted on the internet at least 60 days prior to the election, subject to certain allowable redactions.
At the outset, it is important to recognize that it is far from clear that the requirement would be found unconstitutional. While courts have limited states’ additional qualifications on candidates for federal office, there may be legitimate qualifying acts required to get on a local ballot.
For example, Hawaii requires that candidates for U.S. Senate or House of Representatives gather the signatures of 25 registered voters in order to qualify. And a presidential candidate who is not the nominee of a qualified political party must submit a petition containing 4,377 signatures of currently registered Hawaii voters.
It is entirely reasonable to classify the filing of a candidate’s individual federal tax return as a similar qualifying act, and to proceed under the assumption that the requirement would thus pass constitutional muster.
But beyond debates of constitutionality, the more pressing question is why it is good policy to now demand that presidential candidates provide tax returns, when the requirement has never existed in the past.
Fundamentally, it was not necessary to impose the requirement because tax returns have been provided as a matter of course for over four decades. Between 1976 and 2016, only one major party presidential candidate did not release a tax return: in 1976, Gerald Ford released several years’ worth of summary tax data in lieu of a return.
The effect of this routine disclosure has been a level of trust in basic facts that we may have taken for granted. But the fact remains as it was under Nixon: “People gotta know their president is not a crook.”
Trump’s Sad Refusal
The current president’s refusal to release his tax returns also teaches a lesson about our heavy reliance on tradition to fulfill the basic needs of a democratic society. President Trump’s disregard of even the most basic standards of polite behavior — not to mention truthfulness, ethics, and personal decorum — has demonstrated that if something is important to us, it must be required.
And it is not too much to assume that the public’s constant exposure to ever-new lows in public behavior will lead to a permanent erosion of standards of candidates’ personal conduct.
In fact, it is by deviating so wildly from accepted standards of behavior that Donald Trump has brought these new requirements upon himself and all future candidates. He could not reasonably expect that the voting public would greet his thousands upon thousands of bald misstatements, personal insults, empty promises, and false reassurances without some sort of response.
“People gotta know their president is not a crook.” — Richard Nixon
It is neither surprising nor indefensible for us to respond to frequent, unapologetic demonstrations of untrustworthiness by refusing to trust him.
As for Mr. Yamachika’s suggestion that the public disclosure of tax returns apply to other offices as well, the current version of the bill, House Bill 712 HD1, does just that. It requires disclosures by candidates for governor, lieutenant governor and mayor.
Imposing enforceable standards of behavior, including financial and ethical disclosures, is not, as Mr. Yamachika claims, “thumb(ing) our noses at the president and vice president;” it is recognizing both the value of the information and the reality that some candidates will not perform any difficult act unless it is absolutely required.
Assuming that all candidates will voluntarily comply with financial disclosures will only lead to an ill-informed and frustrated electorate. In fact, we expect more of our voters, and should be able to expect more from our candidates as well.