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February 10, 2009
Washington Should Take the "Thorndike Challenge"
Contributing Editor to Tax Analysts Calls On All Top Officials To Release Their Tax Returns

FALLS CHURCH, VA — All members of Congress, Cabinet secretaries, and top White House officials should release their tax returns so that Americans can learn whether Washington has a tax compliance problem, Tax Analysts’ contributing editor Joseph J. Thorndike writes this week.

Thorndike’s challenge comes in the wake of revelations of the tax problems of Tom Daschle and Nancy Killefer, who both recently withdrew from appointment to top White House positions due to tax problems; of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who survived his own tax problems to win Senate confirmation; and of House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel, who is under investigation by the House Ethics Committee over his taxes.

“We already expect presidents to release their returns,” Thorndike writes in this week’s Tax Notes, the weekly magazine of Tax Analysts that covers federal tax policy and administration. “And vice presidents, and presidential candidates, and all the associated spouses. Who decided to draw the line at the White House door?

“Members of Congress,” Thorndike added, “occupy a position of public trust every bit as serious, if slightly less exalted, than the president. So do members of the Cabinet and other high-ranking officials. If we expect presidents to sacrifice their privacy, why not the rest of them?”

Thorndike suggests that his challenge would reap several benefits:

  • it would put to rest what he calls “the (apparently legitimate) suspicion that politicians play by a different set of rules than the rest of us";
  • it would focus attention on the very important issue of tax compliance, which he suggests is “critical to civic health"; and
  • most importantly, it would “encourage a little humility among the professionally indignant,” those very politicians who have lambasted Geithner and Daschle, in particular, for their tax problems.

“The recent brouhaha surrounding nominee returns has prompted a cascade of cant,” Thorndike writes. “It makes you wonder: How many of these erstwhile colleagues would survive the sort of intense tax vetting that these nominees have received? Not many, I suspect. Maybe not even most.”

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