If Mitt Romney wants to put an end to speculation over his personal finances, he needs to release multiple years of tax returns. His assurance last week that he paid at least 13 percent of his income in federal income tax annually for the last decade won't do it, and he should not be so offended by the requests for more openness. Nothing more is being demanded of Romney than has been routinely asked of and received from most other recent candidates for president, and there is no reason to treat him differently just because of his wealth.
Romney's response to a reporter's question in South Carolina was an attempt to quell the unsubstantiated claim by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid earlier this month that Romney paid no taxes some years. But in fact, Romney's answer just reinforced that wealth sets him apart — he paid a lower percentage of his income in taxes than many other upper-income Americans — and he won't give voters a chance to verify his claim for themselves.
Republican presidential nominee John McCain was an outlier in releasing only two years of tax returns in 2008. Every major party presidential nominee in recent history has released multiple years of tax returns to enable voters to evaluate their financial interests and potential conflicts. That includes Romney's father, then-Michigan Gov. George Romney, who released 12 years of tax returns in his 1968 bid for the Republican presidential nomination.
Much has been made of why Mitt Romney isn't willing to do the same. Economists who have examined his tax returns for 2010 and a summary of 2011 say they raise more questions than answers. How, for example, did Romney come to have an individual retirement account worth $100 million? What was the purpose of offshore accounts? And some have even wondered if Romney is refusing to release returns because he may have taken advantage of an IRS amnesty program in 2009 that allowed Americans to return funds to domestic accounts with minimal penalty.
Romney contends there is nothing untoward, that he has followed tax law and it's simply a matter of privacy. His wife, Ann, said Thursday on NBC's Rock Center that they won't release more tax returns because it would only lead to more attacks and questions: "Mitt is honest. His integrity is just golden."
That's a curious position for a candidate who in recent weeks applied the same scrutiny he's shying away from. U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan turned over "several years" of tax returns to the Romney campaign for vetting before he was added to the ticket. And Romney turned over several years of tax returns to McCain in 2008 when McCain was vetting potential running mates. President Barack Obama has released every tax return since 2001.
Romney knew to expect this scrutiny, yet he still resists. His personal wealth does not entitle him to a different standard of openness.