With the tax filing deadline just days away, millions of Americans – including members of Congress – are filing returns that reveal how much money they have, how much they donate to charity and what investments they make.
While most presidents and presidential candidates happily release their returns, members of Congress don't usually do so. According to a McClatchy count, just 17 out of the 535 members of Congress released their tax forms in 2012. Of a dozen members of Congress questioned by Whispers, the office of just one lawmaker, Rep. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said he definitely planned to release his tax returns this year.
In part, lawmakers may be reluctant to release tax documents because "you can find something interesting in almost any tax return," notes tax historian Joe Thorndike, "though you don't often find a smoking gun."
In recent years, Joe Biden's tax returns attracted attention because the vice president gave little to charity, while President Barack Obama's revealed that he made a good chunk of change on his book sales.
The release of tax returns from both Bush presidents showed the family's sizeable wealth. When Mitt Romney finally released his returns last September after many weeks of intense speculation, they showed the GOP candidate's tax rate was low despite a very high income, due in large part to his investments.
"He took aggressive positions in his tax returns that for a guy running for president is unusual, though for a rich guy is not," says Thorndike. "What [the release of lawmaker tax returns] really are is an occasion to remark on what we know about them already."
But Craig Holman of the watchdog group Public Citizen says that while lawmakers are required by law to disclose some financial information, such as stock trades, "only tax returns provide a more specific and accurate record of personal financial wealth and holdings." Lawmakers should release their tax returns, he says, "so that the public may have confidence that their official actions are not tainted by personal conflicts of interest."
President Obama is expected to release his 2012 return as early as Friday.