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EDITORIAL: Goodbye to tax privacy?

Democrats have a history of gaming the rules to roll their political opponents without considering the possibility that they’ll eventually find themselves on the receiving end. Consider how quickly progressives rued Harry Reid’s gambit to end the filibuster for certain judicial nominees.

A similar dynamic has now played out over Donald Trump’s tax returns.

As they prepared to cede their House majority last week, Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee broke precedent and released the former president’s IRS information dating back six years. Federal law is supposed to protect the confidentiality of such data, with narrow exceptions.

For decades, most presidential candidates have voluntarily released their returns for public scrutiny. Mr. Trump refused, and the voters elected him anyway, indicating they didn’t believe the issue was a disqualifying factor.

But once Democrats took the House following the 2018 elections, they launched an array of investigations into the president. Rep. Richard Neal, the Massachusetts Democrat who chaired Ways and Means, seized upon a provision in the Internal Revenue Code that allows him to request “any return or return information” in pursuit of a legitimate legislative purpose to force Mr. Trump to turn over his taxes.

In reality, the Trump tax dump served little legislative purpose and was purely political. Rep. Neal claimed it was necessary to ensure the IRS conducted regular audits of sitting presidents. But that could have been accomplished without taking the unprecedented step of making public the private tax information of a political opponent.

As for Mr. Trump’s returns, the documents show he made aggressive use of the tax laws to limit his financial liability. That’s hardly earth-shattering news. Further simplifying the tax code would be a noble undertaking, but don’t blame Mr. Trump for using loopholes approved by Congress.

Payback, unfortunately, is a tried and true tactic in the gutter world of hardball politics. With the GOP now running the House — the speaker train wreck notwithstanding — it’s virtually a sure thing that Democrats will come to lament their cavalier decision to weaponize tax information, which has privacy ramifications for all taxpayers.

George K. Yin, an emeritus tax law professor at the University of Virginia, told The New York Times that if this tactic becomes common, “that’s the end of tax privacy. Essentially no one’s tax information is really protected, as long as you cross some interest who happens to be in power at some particular point in time. Then we’re all vulnerable.”

When Reid used the so-called nuclear option to ensure the confirmation of Barack Obama’s judicial nominees, then-Minority Leader Mitch McConnell warned, “You’ll regret this. And you may regret this a lot sooner than you think.” It’s deja vu all over again.

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