Editor’s Note: Edward J. McCaffery is Robert C. Packard trustee chair in law and a professor of law, economics and political science at the University of Southern California. He is the author of “Fair Not Flat: How to Make the Tax System Better and Simpler” and founder of the People’s Tax Page. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
Yes, now that the Democrats have taken control of the House of Representatives, they get to serve as committee chairs and that gives them the power of issuing subpoenas all by themselves. And, yes, Democrats can subpoena President Trump’s tax returns, as they almost certainly will, and should – there is much of potential interest in those returns, materially connected to Trump’s possible conflicts of interest, foreign entanglements, and more.
And, yes, Trump can oppose the subpoenas, and fight them in court, and it will be up to non-elected judges to decide the issue in the end. Meanwhile, our reality-TV-world of politics will breathlessly cover the twists and turns of the tale, as they already have begun to do.
But the Democrats got a much more important power on Election Day, one directly connected to the present and future well-being of all Americans. The US Constitution, in its so-called Origination Clause, provides that any law for raising revenue – taxes – must begin in the House. House Democrats, who won their majority largely by hewing to pocketbook issues such as healthcare and taxes, can do some real governance by using their power to tax to propose actual tax legislation.
What might this look like? Without getting into the weeds, there are two broad approaches to take. One, Democrats can propose a real, and fiscally responsible, middle class tax cut – one that gives real benefits to working Americans and is paid for by asking for some payments from the wealthiest, who can now, like Jared Kushner, avoid all taxes.
Two, the Democrats can propose legislation that actually shuts down loopholes that the rich, like Kushner and his father-in-law, use to dodge paying taxes.
Get our free weekly newsletter
Sure, any such tax bill would be unlikely to get 50 votes in the Senate, or to get signed by President Trump, or to have a two-thirds majority in either chamber to override a presidential veto. So what? Both types of legislation would be good for the people right now, and Democrats would simply be doing their job, as they were elected to do, with either approach.
Republican opposition to either type of bill would only give the lie to the idea that Republicans care about average Americans when it comes to their tax policies or to protecting entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare. Entitlement programs are relevant because when tax policy creates deficits, as the Trump tax cut did, it puts all government spending programs at risk.
Proposing good tax policies to help average Americans and to rein in the excesses of the wealthiest might not be as sexy and headline-grabbing as a relentless quest for the holy grail of Trump’s tax returns. But good tax proposals would reflect Democrats exercising their Constitutional role to help the people who elected them with real issues, affecting real money. That would make for a better reality for all Americans, not just better reality television.