Presidential candidates have long history of releasing tax returns
July 16th, 2012
08:26 PM ET
2 years ago

Presidential candidates have long history of releasing tax returns

Atlanta (CNN) - Mitt Romney has insisted that he will only release two years of his personal income taxes. But while candidates running for president are not legally obligated to release their taxes, there is a long tradition of doing so, in addition to public financial disclosure laws candidates must follow.

On Friday, Romney stated that his 2010 and, when complete, his 2011 taxes will be all that he makes public. He already released a 2011 estimate of taxes when he filed an extension with the Internal Revenue Service. He told CNN in an interview that the two years are "what we're going to put out…those are the two years that people are going to have."

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Experts, however, say the attempt at privacy may be futile. Joseph Thorndike, Director of the Tax History Project at Tax Analysts, said in today's political environment "these guys don't have any privacy in any sphere" and that "getting hung up in tax privacy seems a little anachronistic".

Thorndike traced the roots of presidential candidates releasing tax returns back to President Nixon's famed "Checkers" speech in 1952, where in an attempt to clear his name over controversy surrounding his finances, he spoke about his Cocker Spaniel "Checkers." As the vice presidential candidate for Dwight Eisenhower, Nixon baited the candidates running against him, Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson and runningmate Sen. John Sparkman, to release their financial information by saying Americans wanted a president who had the "confidence" of all people.

Ironically, Stevenson and Sparkman complied, releasing several years of returns while Nixon never followed through with releasing his own. He and Eisenhower went on to win the election, and Nixon released four years of tax returns later while in office after facing additional questions over his finances.

Presidential candidates began releasing their returns consistently starting in the early 1970's according to Thorndike, and in 1978, all presidential and vice presidential candidates were required to release certain financial documents as a result of the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, which mandates all candidates running for office of President of the United States to file a Public Financial Disclosure Report with the Federal Election Commission.

How does Romney measure up to financial transparency exercised by candidates in years past? According to Rob Kelner, the chair of the Election and Political Law Practice Group for Covington and Burling LLP, "there's no hard and fast rule on how they're released," but the idea of releasing even a summary of a tax return is traditionally expected.

The Tax History Project has compiled a list of many sitting presidents and candidates tax returns, and noted an eye-popping 25 years of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's tax returns were made public. However this came after FDR left office, when his family elected to release them.

The Los Angeles Times noted in 1964 that eventual Vice President Hubert Humphrey reported a net worth of $171,396 and was the "least wealthy" of the four top candidates in the running. His running mate President Lyndon Johnson was the wealthiest. Johnson was the only one out of four candidates who provided no net worth, only partial financials.

Romney's father, George Romney, who made a failed bid for president as a Republican candidate in 1968, released 12 years of tax returns.

Senator George McGovern, the Democrat candidate who lost to incumbent Republican President Richard Nixon in 1972, had a net worth of approximately $300,000 according to the New York Times, but the article, written in August 1972, noted that neither McGovern nor Nixon had provided a "detailed audited statement such as one made by former President Johnson", though both had released "general financial statements to the public".

As a Democratic presidential candidate Jimmy Carter released just one year of returns for the year 1975, while sitting President Gerald Ford had released summaries of the previous 10 years, according to the Washington Post. Nine years of Ford's tax returns now live on the Gerald R. Ford Library website, and one partial year.

In 1980, former President Ronald Reagan released one year of records. Former Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry released 20 years of tax returns when he ran against George W. Bush in 2004, however his independently wealthy wife Teresa Heinz Kerry only released a portion of her 2003 returns after mounting pressure.

Sen. John McCain released two years when he ran for office in 2008, but his wife Cindy, who files separately, released partial returns. President Barack Obama has released 12 years of tax returns.

Kelner says financial and ethical disclosure requirements for candidates have "become so excessive, it really is discouraging good people from running for office." The candidates not only face the pressure as individuals, they are now forced to think about their families and others, which Kelner says is "very intrusive, something they all have to weigh."

– CNN's Devon Sayers and Caitlin Stark contributed to this report.


Filed under: 2012 • Mitt Romney • Taxes
soundoff (45 Responses)
  1. They ought to change from the elephant to the hippo...

    But of course, none of them are as big a liars as Mitt, who has plenty to hide! Show us your taxes!

    July 16, 2012 08:30 pm at 8:30 pm |
  2. americanleaguer

    He is required to file a Public Financial Disclosure Report. He HAS complied.

    He is *not* required to make his tax returns public, but he will release two years. That is more than John Kerry's wife did and she was not required.

    I don't care how much money he has or what he does with it. That is HIS money.

    July 16, 2012 08:35 pm at 8:35 pm |
  3. Snow

    How about obama release his college transcripts and thesis's then Governor Romney will release "more" tax returns.

    July 16, 2012 08:38 pm at 8:38 pm |
  4. MaryM

    Romney, release your tax returns or you will not be elected POTUS

    July 16, 2012 08:42 pm at 8:42 pm |
  5. Marie MD

    Imagine that. The bully bishop not being truthful. Who would have thunk it?
    How much does he pay these clowns who do his taxes? I would do them for free just to find out what he is hiding. What a bunch of slackers. I take it he doesn't want the people he fired or the 99% to find out how the 1% lives?
    I think we already know.

    July 16, 2012 09:04 pm at 9:04 pm |
  6. Stephen Puryear

    Uh, McGovern lost to Nixon in '72, not the other way around.

    July 16, 2012 09:06 pm at 9:06 pm |
  7. Maxx

    Only little people release their tax statements.

    July 16, 2012 09:07 pm at 9:07 pm |
  8. Name Stephanie from Pittsburgh

    If Romney was truly honest he would not have a problem releasing his taxes or what he did as Massachusetts governor. I don't trust him to many secrets. You cannot be POTUS if you have so much to hide. Obama 2012!!!

    July 16, 2012 09:13 pm at 9:13 pm |
  9. larry

    ...but Obama had to release a copy of his birth certificate. Now these morons are calling for release of his transcripts. I'm surprised these people know what a transcript is.

    July 16, 2012 09:13 pm at 9:13 pm |
  10. gwats

    I'm 100% sure that if Romney releases un-altered Tax returns for the last ten years, his candidacy is over. This is basic good politics 101 to release 10 years of prior tax returns. He may claim ignorance of what went on @ Bain, but I'm betting his tax returns will sing a much different tune.

    July 16, 2012 09:18 pm at 9:18 pm |
  11. Wake up people

    Show us those taxes Robmey, the American people deserve to know the truth. Also run that long form birth certificate while you're at it.

    OBAMA 2012!

    July 16, 2012 09:19 pm at 9:19 pm |
  12. Another white lie

    Who cares !? If the IRS didn't find fault with them, they shouldn't even be discussed.
    The man has been successful instead of feeding on the system as Barack has done.

    July 16, 2012 09:20 pm at 9:20 pm |
  13. Pete

    Romneys painting himself into an inescapable corner isn't he,all his statements have been disputed as lies and he's going down fast..Now he's got Sen.Kerry,also an exgovernor from Massachusetts also mad at him,saying derogatory statements about him when Kerry wasn't around ,typical hypocrite republicans,always ignorent and good for a laugh because people ,even republicans see him for what he is,an arrogent elitist that can't relate with the populus,that's bad when he needs them for votes doesn't it!!

    July 16, 2012 09:25 pm at 9:25 pm |
  14. Really?

    College transcripts, too

    July 16, 2012 09:36 pm at 9:36 pm |
  15. America Beautiful--Minus GOP/TP

    It's blatantly obvious this lying plastic man has a lot to hide. say goodbuy to putting all your bet into Obama one-term (and not jobs) GOP/TP obstructionist American Haters.

    July 16, 2012 09:38 pm at 9:38 pm |
  16. Anonymous

    Romneys did release 20 years worth to John Mccain when being vetted for VP! How is The Grand old Party (GOP) more important than the American people! CNN, where is the reporting on Spending Disclosure Bill! I understand you and FOXNEWS do not think its news worthy, but the American people do! Because, this year we are paying attention to your pandering to the right analyst, inadequate coverage of issues, lack of indepth reporting ( basically word of mouth from repuglicans and their sympathiezers). Could the reason be for your lack of interest on this bill is, it reveals how the repuglican party is trying to buy the election, all republicans blocked this bill; the bill would have revealed democrats who contributed 10,000 dollars or more too. I am not shocked by repuglican reluctancy, because Mitt Romney will not release a list of his contributors like President Obama and President George W. Bush!

    July 16, 2012 09:41 pm at 9:41 pm |
  17. artraveler

    What do you have to hide, Mr Romney? Employment information from Bain later than 2003? Money hidden in more countries? Dependents we don't know about? Income from illegal or improper sources that would embarrass a presidential candidate? Donations that will embarrass you, e.g., Planned Parenthood? What you hiding. Mitt?

    July 16, 2012 09:42 pm at 9:42 pm |
  18. Michael

    Romney will not release his returns now, but he did release 20 years worth to John Mccain, when he was being vetted for a VP position in 2008. CNN, where is the reporting on Spending Disclosure Bill! I understand you and FOXNEWS do not think its news worthy, but the American people do! Because, this year we are paying attention to your pandering to the right analyst, inadequate coverage of issues, lack of indepth reporting ( basically word of mouth from repuglicans and their sympathiezers). Could the reason be for your lack of interest on this bill is, it reveals how the repuglican party is trying to buy the election, all republicans blocked this bill; the bill would have revealed democrats who contributed 10,000 dollars or more too. I am not shocked by repuglican reluctancy, because Mitt Romney will not release a list of his contributors like President Obama and President George W. Bush!

    July 16, 2012 09:44 pm at 9:44 pm |
  19. John

    Ok, I was curious what Kerry released, since he was running for President and not his wife. But Romney feels the need to equate and compare his situation to Teresa. Please, Romney should release his taxes from 98 on to clear up anything related to Bain. Oh, and since Romney brings up Teresa, well make sure Ann releases her taxes.

    July 16, 2012 09:44 pm at 9:44 pm |
  20. ted

    The question is exactly this: What is he hiding and why? I hope this derails his candidacy and the GOP rolls up in a fetal ball wondering why exactly they ralled around this clown.

    July 16, 2012 09:44 pm at 9:44 pm |
  21. dave

    come on mitt release your tax returns! what are you hiding? you are starting to look and act like a president we had in the past who stood in front of the press saying "the people have a right to know if their president is a crook! well! i am not a crook!"

    July 16, 2012 09:46 pm at 9:46 pm |
  22. Hey, Mittens, got any more of those 100K Bain jobs for doing nothing? 'Call Me, Maybe'?

    Not to worry, after November that tradition of Presidents releasing more than one year's tax reforms will still be intact.

    July 16, 2012 09:49 pm at 9:49 pm |
  23. Bill in Florida

    Romney might as well bite the bullet now and release the past 10 years of tax returns. Otherwise, Obama, other Dems, and even more and more Reps will keep hounding him. Romney WILL release more returns; it's just a matter of when (my guess is by the end of next week).

    July 16, 2012 09:51 pm at 9:51 pm |
  24. Mack

    He's not releasing them because he's trying to hide something. Simple.

    July 16, 2012 09:53 pm at 9:53 pm |
  25. skarphace

    If Obama was the candidate refusing to release more than the last two years of tax returns, the Republicans would be skewering him.

    That being said, I see this as a sideshow. Everybody already knows that Romney is one of the ultra-wealthy. Whether he releases his tax returns or not will not change a single vote either way.

    July 16, 2012 09:53 pm at 9:53 pm |
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