Want to run for president? Show us your taxes

Let the record show that it's possible for politicians with the most self-serving and political of motivations to stumble upon a really good idea. Such is the case with the latest blue state trend — proposed laws that require candidates running for president to release five years of tax returns or be denied a place on the ballot.

In Maryland, that plan was floated just this week by two Prince George's County lawmakers who obviously have in mind President-elect Donald Trump and his failure to disclose his tax returns despite decades of precedent from candidates from both parties. It's conceivable that in 2020, a sitting president might be denied a place on the Maryland ballot if Mr. Trump continues to flout convention.


New York, Massachusetts, California and Maine are considering similar proposals, and other states with Democratically-controlled legislatures are likely to follow suit. The sponsors don't even try to hide where their good government instincts are coming from — New York's version of the bill is titled the "Tax Returns Uniformly Made Public Act." (TRUMP, get it?)

Whether the Democrats behind this are motivated by bare-knuckled partisanship or a genuine desire to bring transparency to the next election is ultimately immaterial. Those who oppose such disclosure need only answer one question: Why not expect candidates for the highest office in the land to fully disclose their personal finances and thus any potential conflicts of interest?


Mr. Trump likes to say that any doubts about his personal finances were "baked into" the election results, but that's not exactly true. Not knowing the truth about a candidate isn't the same as judging his or her possible shortcomings. Just ask John Podesta or the Democratic National Committee the rather significant difference between embarrassing emails held in a confidential account and embarrassing emails that have been disclosed to the general public.

Tuesday's ethics debacle in the U.S. House of Representatives underscores the absurdity of Mr. Trump's failure to disclose. Republicans had initially voted to weaken the independent Office of Congressional Ethics only to be embarrassed by the president-elect on Twitter. The GOP quickly reversed itself and Mr. Trump looked like an ethics champion.


Here's the problem: The public can't know what it doesn't know. As Mr. Trump has repeatedly pointed out, sitting presidents are largely exempt from conflict-of-interest laws. The only time to find out the truth of a president's finances is before he or she is elected. And in 2016, that didn't happen for the candidate who ended up winning.

What might be discovered in five years of tax returns? Americans would know Mr. Trump's income, his sources of income, his support for charity, what loopholes he's employed to avoid taxes, what assets he owns, what debts he carries and perhaps whether he's invested in partnerships or companies or other vehicles that ought to give pause. What if, for example, he's heavily indebted to Russian banks, a possibility that would give quite a different spin on the ongoing hacking controversy and Mr. Trump's attacks on the intelligence community?

The list goes on and on. No bank or similar lending institution would provide a loan to an individual without reviewing tax returns; why should voters not demand a similar accounting? It's not just an insight into finances; returns can provide a window into a candidate's character. To whom is Mr. Trump beholden?

Trump supporters can gnash their teeth all they want and point to Democrats' obvious hypocrisy given that their nominee wasn't a paragon of transparency either. But so what? The beauty of the TRUMP Act, or whatever one wants to call it, is that it would apply equally to all presidential candidates. It sets the ethical standard now and, hopefully, forever. Surely, that's worth even more than the independence of a congressional investigator, given that ethics complaints still must ultimately be dealt with by members of Congress, not their watchdog.

Yet if House Republicans can be shamed into keeping some meat on the bones of their ethics practices, perhaps GOP-controlled state legislatures will see the light as well.