For some of us at Unbury the Lead, New Jersey's 11th District is home. Our Congressional Representative is Rodney Frelinghuysen, a Republican who has held his office since 1995. Congressman Frelinghuysen generally has reputation as a moderate Republican, often aligning with his party on fiscal and foreign policy, while breaking with his more socially conservative colleagues on issues such as abortion. His nickname "The Dynasty" comes from his family's history in New Jersey politics which goes all the way back to the Revolutionary war. His father, Peter Frelinghuysen, represented New Jersey's 5th district for over 20 years. His great-great-great-great grandfather Frederick Frelinghuysen was a revolutionary war veteran and delegate to the second continental congress in 1779.
Congressman Frelinghuysen has easily won each of his reelection campaigns during his tenure, most recently winning 58% of the vote over democratic challenger Joseph Wenzel in 2016. Lately however, many of his constituents have been showing their displeasure with the congressman, holding regular demonstrations outside his office. The demonstrations were generally focused on pressuring Congressman Frelinghuysen in to holding a town hall and addressing their concerns about the Trump administration. Congressman Frelinghuysen has been communicating with constituents using telephone town halls, which according to his office, have been attended by thousands of constituents. His response to a constituent regarding President Trump's tax returns in a town hall on February 28th was extremely peculiar, here is his statement, recounted in a communication to constituents:
"I told Mary in Morris Plains that I believe the President should release his tax returns, Vladimir Putin is KGB and not a friend of this country and that we must put pressure on Putin and his cronies at every turn."
Unfortunately, his office did not restate or summarize Mary's question, so it may be possible that the tax return issue and the Putin comments are not meant to be connected. If they were, it appears the congressman would be implying that President Trump is one of Putin's cronies, which seems unlikely. Assuming that this is just unfortunate wording, the congressman's statement that President should release his tax returns is quite strange on its own. Why? Because a day earlier, Congressman Frelinghuysen voted to block a measure which would have released the returns to the House Ways and Means Committee for review. The congressional activities for that day can be found here, and the vote tallies for this measure, which went along party lines, can be found here. The measure was introduced by Congressman Frelinghuysen's New Jersey colleague, Democrat Bill Pascrell.
The Ways and Means Committee is able to request the president's tax returns through the treasury department, who then would release the return to the committee, not the public. The returns could then be reviewed by the committee in a closed session, where they then can vote on whether or not the return should be released to the rest of the house. This is therefore less than what Congressman Frelinghuysen appears to be calling for when he said the President should release his returns.
President Trump has made it very clear that he does not want to release his returns, and will not do so voluntarily. Thus far, public opinion, a record shattering whitehouse.gov petition, and polite suggestions from the likes of Congressman Frelinghuysen have not made the President change his mind on this. This is an issue that needs to be taken very seriously, given that President Trump is in a position where his decisions and policies affect the bottom line of his and his families businesses. This is not just a matter of a politician being in a position to improperly enrich himself and his family, it has national security implications as well. Can the President be trusted to put the interests of the American people above his own personal financial interest? His campaign already paid over 12 million to his own businesses, and his families continued international business activities present a host of ethics dilemmas which can not be resolved simply by President Trump's claim that he is not being influenced by conflicts of interest. Citizens deserve to know whether or not their public servants are abusing their power, and government accountability should not be voluntary.
We expect better of Congressman Frelinghuysen, and sent him the following letter urging him to work with Congressman Pascrell to legally compel the President to release his returns through whatever mechanisms are available. You can modify this letter as you see fit in case your representative has also voted against obtaining President Trump's returns. Also be sure to check out this post, where we describe how we can ensure that candidates disclose and address potential conflicts of interest through both state and federal legislation.
Dear Congressman Frelinghuysen,
We are writing to express our extreme displeasure at your obstruction of efforts to ensure proper accountability of the executive branch by blocking the release of President Trump's tax returns to the House Ways and Means Committee. In a recent telephone town hall, you told a constituent that you thought that President Trump should release his returns, and yet one day earlier in Roll Call Vote 101 on February 27th 2017, you voted to block Congressman Pascrell's resolution to direct the Ways and Means Committee to request the returns from the Treasury Department.
It is abundantly clear that President Trump will not voluntarily release his returns, nor will he voluntarily address the extensive and troubling conflicts of interest that his and his families international business dealings present. Therefore it is your responsibility to uphold and enforce the standards of government transparency that your constituents deserve. Since your words and actions do not align on this matter, please clarify your position. If you objected to Congressman Pascrell's resolution simply on procedural grounds, then we urge you to to work with Congressman Pascrell in his efforts to ensure the release of President Trump's tax returns so any potential conflict of interest may be addressed properly.