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Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson March 12, 2021

House-passed H.R. 1 would require presidential, VP candidates to share tax returns

After Donald Trump broke with a decades-old practice of presidential candidates releasing their tax returns, Joe Biden said during his campaign against Trump that he would make sure that no future candidate could do the same thing.

"As president, Biden will enact legislation requiring that every candidate for federal office disclose returns dating back 10 years prior to the date they declared their candidacy for their first federal office," the Biden campaign said.

The voting and elections bill known as H.R. 1 addresses a portion of this promise, though not all of it.

A provision of H.R. 1 says that all candidates for president and vice president must submit 10 years' worth of tax returns to the Federal Election Commission, which would make them public with necessary redactions to protect personal information.

But it's important to note a few caveats.

First, H.R. 1 has passed the House but faces a difficult path in the Senate, where it would require 60 votes to advance. That means 10 Republican senators would need to approve a motion to proceed to consideration, which is unlikely since not a single Republican voted for H.R. 1 on final passage in the House.

Second, the provision within H.R. 1 is more limited than what Biden advocated during the campaign. It addresses tax returns for presidential and vice presidential candidates, not for all candidates for federal office (which would include the Senate and House).

And third, some experts say the tax return provision could be unconstitutional. 

"The Constitution sets the requirements for presidential candidates, not federal law," said Matthew Weil, associate director of the Bipartisan Policy Center's Democracy Project. "I have to believe that those provisions in H.R. 1, if enacted into law, would be challenged in court and likely deemed unconstitutional."

Weil said that while states "have some leeway to implement ballot access restrictions that are deemed to be not too burdensome," such as signature requirements and filing fees, the California Supreme Court in 2019 struck down a state law that would have required presidential candidates to publicly disclose their tax returns. The ruling said the additional burden would not pass constitutional muster.

The same risk of being declared unconstitutional would also apply to a similar requirement on candidates for House and Senate, Weil said, since the requirements for candidates to Congress are enumerated in Article I of the Constitution.

Setting aside the question of constitutionality, the House's passage of H.R. 1 does indicate that at least a portion of Biden's promise is moving forward, so we rate it In the Works.

Our Sources

Congress.gov, H.R. 1, accessed March 12, 2021

House roll call vote on H.R. 1, accessed March 12, 2021

Email interview with Matthew Weil, associate director of the Bipartisan Policy Center's Democracy Project, March 12, 2021

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