How much is enough? Three months ahead of U.S. presidential elections, wealthy Republican challenger Mitt Romney is resisting pressure from his opponent, President Barack Obama, to disclose more personal income tax records.
The tussle between the Republican challenger and the Democratic incumbent brings into sharp focus a question at the heart of U.S. politics today: How much private financial data must a candidate for public office be required to provide for voters?
Romney says release of his tax records for the past two years is enough; Obama’s campaign says the former head of a hedge fund whose personal net worth has been estimated at $250 million must release more data in the name of “transparency”.
“Over the past 10 years I never paid less than 13 percent” in income tax, Romney told reporters on Thursday, again insisting that he would not release for public scrutiny anything beyond the 2010 and 2011 tax returns he has already published.
His remark came after U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, citing an unnamed “source” in the investment firm Romney once headed, said recently that Romney took advantage of loopholes and paid no taxes on his substantial income for 10 years.
Romney has rejected that claim as “totally false” and his wife, Ann Romney, reiterated in an interview last week with NBC News, that her husband would release no more personal tax information to the public before the November 6 election.
“We have a process in this country, which was established by law, which provides for the transparency which candidates are required to meet,” Romney told Bloomberg Businessweek earlier this month.
“I have met with that requirement with full financial disclosure of all my investments.”
Obama by contrast has released 12 years of his personal tax records. His supporters are implying that Romney has refused to publish more of his own records because he has something to hide, and analysts say he is in a political quandary on the issue.
“Mitt Romney is not the skimpiest, and he’s not the most forthcoming,” explained Joseph Thorndike, director of the Tax History Project at Tax Analysts, a publisher focusing on tax policy. “But he’s definitely on the skimpy end of the spectrum when it comes to disclosure.”
Presidential candidates in the United States are not required by law to disclose their tax returns, and there are no hard-and-fast rules dictating how many they should release.
In the half century since the practice began, the number of tax returns candidates choose to disclose has fluctuated greatly, historians and political scientists say.
When Romney’s father, the former governor of the state of Michigan, George Romney, ran unsuccessfully for president in 1968, for example, he released 12 years of tax returns to the public.
But the practice of releasing tax returns did not become entrenched in U.S. presidential politics until 1973, when President Richard Nixon, embroiled in the Watergate scandal that would result in his resignation, opened up his tax returns for the previous four years.
“Every president after that has chosen to release tax information in the interest of keeping things looking clean, and most major party candidates have released returns as well,” Thorndike said.
U.S. presidential and vice presidential candidates are required to file personal financial disclosure reports, but the information divulged in these publicly available documents is extremely broad, said Craig Holman, a veteran expert on governmental ethics with Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group.
“Tax returns are much more explicit in revealing conflicts of interest,” Holman said.
Presidential candidates in Russia are required to submit publicly accessible declarations of their assets and income as well, and former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev—now the prime minister—signed a decree in 2009 mandating senior officials to release this information also.
However both requirements leave room for a candidate or official to keep wealth hidden from the public, said Ivan Ninenko, deputy director of Transparency International in Russia.
In the United States, presidential candidates’ personal finances can impact voter opinion significantly in connection with the candidate’s broader reputation, according to Marc Hetherington, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University who has written extensively on the role of trust in U.S. politics.
“Attacks against someone always work better when they play into an existing narrative about the person, and the existing narrative about Mitt Romney is that he’s a little slippery as relates to his positions on issues—and that he’s well off,” Hetherington said.
In a USA Today/Gallup Poll conducted last month, 44 percent of respondents said they believed additional tax returns released by Romney would reveal damaging information about the candidate, while 42 percent said they believe the additional returns would not include anything detrimental to his White House bid. The poll had a margin of error of five percent.
“If Romney released his taxes at this point, he would be putting himself on the defensive in responding to the president’s attacks,” said Jamie Chandler a political scientist at Hunter College in New York City. “You don’t want to yield to the opponent’s calls for you to do something.”
Obama’s campaign last week offered a “deal” on the tax issue to Romney, calling on the Republic to release five years of his personal tax returns in exchange for putting the matter to rest as a campaign issue.
The furor over Romney’s tax returns may fade from public view following Romney’s selection of Congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate, Chandler said.
Democrats will likely find a “bigger political bang for their buck” attacking Ryan’s contentious plans for the federal budget, which critics say would negatively impact the middle class and the poor while providing tax breaks for the wealthy.