What Voters Can Learn From Tax Returns
Candidates and members of Congress are required by law to file personal financial disclosures that are designed to shed a light on their potential conflicts of interest.
These documents show a lawmakers' assets and liabilities, reported in broad ranges. Tax returns, in contrast, provide snapshots of their annual net income, are subject to audit and require taxpayers to report specific amounts.
Transparency advocates have argued that disclosure rules are too broad, enforcement is too lax, and that tax returns could help provide a fuller picture. Here is a look at where the two documents differ.
Tax returns show exact amounts for all sources of income, including wages and investment income for taxpayers, and their spouses — if they file jointly. Personal financial disclosures show ranges of unearned income. While the salaries of members of Congress are public, congressional candidates must disclose their earned income once they raise or spend more than $5,000. Disclosures also show the source, but not the amount, of income earned by a spouse if it exceeds $1,000.
Personal financial disclosures provide ballpark values for cash, stocks, investments, certain trust assets, among others. Tax returns have limited asset disclosure requirements, for example, when stocks or business assets are sold.
Personal financial disclosures provide values of certain personal liabilities in broad ranges, but not including mortgages on a personal residence, personal vehicles or other personal property, and revolving charge accounts with balances over $10,000 at the close of the preceding calendar year. Tax returns largely do not require disclosure of personal liabilities.
Tax returns show the amount of income taxes paid, and the amount and types of deductions and credits taken. This information is not required on a personal financial disclosure.
Tax returns show real estate taxes paid and net income, gains or losses from properties being rented or sold. Personal financial disclosures show the value of property owned, in ranges, not counting a personal residence.
Tax returns list itemized charitable contributions. This is not required on a personal financial disclosure.
Personal financial disclosures show gifts and travel reimbursements.
House appropriators have approved a fiscal 2018 Legislative Branch spending bill that would boost security both at the Capitol and in members’ districts.
The House Appropriations Legislative Branch subcommittee at a brief meeting on Friday approved by voice vote the $3.58 billion fiscal 2018 Legislative Branch measure. No amendments were offered.
The bill would provide $100 million more than the fiscal 2017 enacted level to fund operations in the House, Capitol Police, Library of Congress, Government Accountability Office and other legislative branch agencies.
“We are taking a new, fresh look at security,” said subcommittee Chairman Kevin Yoder, R-Kan.
Yoder and House Administration Chairman Gregg Harper, R-Miss., collaborated on a plan for the House Administration Committee to increase the Members’ Representational Allowances accounts by $25,000 per member for official event security in members’ districts for the rest of fiscal 2017, which ends Sept. 30. The allocations won’t require additional appropriations.
The same level of per-office security funding could be added to MRA accounts for fiscal 2018, Yoder said. “There are enough resources [for] $25,000 next year, if the House Administration Committee so chooses,” he said.
The bill would also provide $5 million for the House Sergeant-at-Arms to enhance district office security, such as cameras, panic buttons and other security infrastructure.
The bill would boost Capitol Police funding by $29.2 million to $422.5 million for fiscal 2018. “We owe it to the Capitol Police to make sure that they have the necessary resources they need to meet the mission in this increasingly polarized climate,” said Yoder.
Security funding is a perennial discussion in the Legislative Branch bill, but concerns were magnified by the attack earlier this month on House Republicans at a baseball practice where an assailant injured House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., two Capitol Police officers and others. The gunman was killed by the security team assigned to Scalise, who in his leadership position has a Capitol Police detail.
“The tragic events of June 14 weigh heavily on these deliberations and are reflected in this proposal,” said Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J.
A full committee markup of the bill is expected as soon as next week. The Senate Appropriations Committee has yet to act on its version.
Members currently can only hire personal security using their official accounts on a case-by-case basis, with approval by the House Sergeant-at-Arms. The additional MRA funding for security would not need to be cleared through the SAA, Yoder told CQ Roll Call.
“There are some members in particular who have had very specific threats made upon them and their family and are understandably increasingly fearful,” Yoder said. “We want to give them the resources to protect themselves if they feel necessary.”
He added that the additional MRA funds are for personal security at events in a limited fashion, noting that “$25,000 isn’t going to get them very far.”
Subcommittee ranking member Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, supports the increases for Capitol Police and Sergeant-at-Arms funding, but said members need more information about the full range of options for enhancing security for offices and homes, including information about the cost.
“The scariest part for us is, there used to be this impression by the public that we all had security everywhere we went. Now everyone knows that isn’t the case,” said Ryan.
An ongoing issue that is not directly addressed in the measure is security at members’ residences. Currently, campaign funds can only be used under strict guidelines and with permission from the Federal Elections Commission to pay for security at residences.
According to Yoder, the FEC is considering a blanket allowance for campaign funds to be used to secure member residences.
Christian Hilland, an FEC spokesperson, said that the commission has allowed use of campaign funds to pay for security enhancements made in response to threats to an officeholder’s safety. “The security upgrades were not considered personal use of campaign funds because the threats would not exist irrespective of the officeholders’ candidacy or duties as an officeholder,” Hilland told CQ Roll Call.
Hilland noted that the FEC has not adopted a blanket policy in connection with using campaign funds for security expenses, however.
Funding proposed for other Legislative Branch agencies:
The most expensive House race in history has come to a close with the Associated Press calling Georgia's 6th District race for GOP candidate Karen Handel over Democrat Jon Ossoff on Tuesday evening.
Here are the last few days of the campaign in photos as captured by Roll Call's photographer:
SANDY SPRINGS, Ga. — It’s Election Day in Georgia, so this column goes to print before we know the outcome of the 6th District special election to replace Dr. Tom Price in Congress. But whether Karen Handel, the Republican, pulls off a win or Jon Ossoff, the Democrat, manages an upset, it is well-understood here that the politics of this once solidly Republican district have changed, almost overnight.
The fact that Ossoff became so competitive, so quickly in this race was almost entirely because of Donald Trump. Trump was certainly the reason Democratic activists across the country pumped $20 million into a district where the biggest tourist attraction is a giant red chicken in front of a vintage KFC. Trump was also the reason countless Ossoff volunteers told me they were working for him “because at least it is something I could do” after Trump won in November.
Even local GOP operatives readily admitted that their problem was the president. And for the first time in nearly 40 years, Democrats in the district had a solution in the form of Ossoff, a 30-year-old former congressional staffer who may well be the prototype for a new kind of Southern Democrat to run against sitting Republicans in the New South.
While rural Democrats such as Sen. Sam Nunn and Gov. and Sen. Zell Miller once dominated Georgia and the South, Democrats were wiped out across the country in 2002 and beyond, including one of my old bosses, former Sen. Max Cleland.
I had also worked for Nunn before Cleland, and I watched over the course of my time in the Senate as Southern Democrats became fewer and fewer. People at home used to tell me they were “Sam Nunn Democrats,” meaning they were socially moderate, fiscally conservative and pro-defense. By the time Cleland lost his race in 2002, people at home wanted to know how I had become so wayward that I ended up “a liberal.”
My politics hadn’t changed, but the Democratic brand had. Instead of meaning a person was pro-business, pro-defense and socially moderate, the term “Southern Democrat” began to mean simply liberal, until it eventually meant something worse — nothing at all. I was so turned off by politics by the 2002 race, I decided to go into journalism, where at least no one would call me names. Oh, well.
As my first act of journalism, I wrote an entire book proposal titled, “Are the Yellow Dogs Done Barking?” Growing up in Georgia, people were known as “Yellow Dog Democrats,” meaning they would vote for anyone, even a yellow dog, if he had a “D” by his name on the ballot. My book would be an attempt to find out if Democrats in the South were dead as a governing party forever.
I never took my book proposal to agents in 2003 because the answer seemed so obvious at the time. Republicans had come to so dominate the South, it seemed impossible to envision a day when a Democrat could run even a competitive race statewide, or in the majority-white congressional districts that Republican legislatures had specifically drawn to stay in Republican hands for a generation.
But Ossoff’s campaign marks the first I’ve seen of what I’d call a New Southern Democrat, a different breed of Southern Democrat. But instead of a bird-hunting, Labrador version of the old Yellow Dog Democrat, Ossoff is more Labradoodle, a friendly companion well-suited to living in a (Southern) suburban condo. He’s a Yellow Dog Democrat for millennial voters, the multicultural, entrepreneurial voters who are pouring into Southern suburbs for jobs and schools and voting in a way their senior citizen neighbors never did.
Instead of running as a liberal or a conservative, Ossoff ran a different kind of campaign, tailored to the sort of majority-white, rapidly changing Southern suburban district Democrats will have to win in the future.
Instead of “Stronger Together,” the two words I heard Ossoff say most often on the campaign trail were “humble and kind.” Other than the fact that “Humble and Kind” is literally the title of a country song, it is also the message that resonated with Republican moms I met in the district, who were so bothered by President Trump’s tweeting, they compared their strategies of how they (successfully) kept their children from doing the same.
Ossoff was also very business-focused. His ads talked about how to make the Atlanta suburbs a tech corridor, and went on, at great length, about Washington wasting everybody’s money. Ironically, Ossoff didn’t hammer the president, nor did he talk about Russia. If the Hillary Clinton campaign could say the same, maybe they would all be in the White House instead of on LinkedIn.
Interestingly, Ossoff is just one of a slate of young, new Southern Democrats trying to find a way back into power. Teresa Tomlinson, the mayor of Columbus, Georgia, wrote an op-ed last week for The Daily Beast about being a “pragmatic progressive.” That answer to George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservative” respects government, works with Republicans, and, according to Tomlinson, “accepts science, technology and fact.” Snaps on that, House GOP.
One of the many criticisms of Ossoff that I’ve heard from Republican leaders in the 6th District is that he is “trying to trick people into thinking he’s a Republican.” They don’t believe what Ossoff is selling — that a person could really be pro-business and socially liberal at the same time. But that is precisely the appeal for the 10 percent of Republicans who voted for Ossoff in the April primary and put him within striking distance to win the seat Tuesday night.
To answer my question 15 years later, no, the Yellow Dogs aren’t done barking.
They don’t look like the old Southern Democrats, but the South doesn’t look the way it used to either. Whichever party figures that out will win in 2018 and beyond.
Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.