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June 2019

Washington Post journalist Isaac Stanley-Becker, a Rhodes Scholar writing from the UK where he is working on his doctorate in Modern European History at Oxford, had a cogent (Morning Mix) column in early May that put into historical perspective the current mess we see unfolding in our nation's capitol on a daily basis relative to congressional access to information, including the President's income taxes.

The extra condensed version is that members of the House Ways and Means Committee in their quest for five years of Trump tax returns are relying on a 1924 law adopted by Congress as a result of a dispute between the Republican Treasury Secretary, Andrew W. Mellon, a well-to-do philanthropist, and Michigan Senator James J. Couzens (R-Detroit), who also led a well-appointed and philanthropic life but was considered one of the Progressive Republicans pushing for what today might be considered policies that are the purview of Democrats.

The authority under which Congress is now acting is part of the Revenue Act of 1924, which granted the power to committees to request (and receive) tax returns of those they request. The law was amended in 1976 to tighten up disclosure regulations, but still left intact the near absolute authority of Congress.

The Couzens connection piqued my interest only because I encountered the fruits of this senator’s labor when I first arrived in Oakland County in the mid- 1970's and worked in the West Bloomfield/Commerce area, where the century-old public largesse of the congressman could be seen in the Westacres residential development on the shores of Middle Straits Lake (more on that later).

Many people may at least recall the Couzens name due to the fact that the Couzens freeway in Detroit was named after the Senator, although the moniker now only graces what serves as a service drive for the Lodge once it was built.

Some basic research unveiled a rather interesting story of one of Detroit's early leaders.

Couzens was born in Canada and became a naturalized citizen of our country. A workaholic, he was one of a dozen early investors ($2,500) in the Ford Motor Company in 1903 and served as its corporate secretary and eventually became its general manager.

Couzens and Ford were not necessarily close, in fact Couzens was not what you would call a fan of Ford, including his anti-Semitic views. While helping to run the Ford Motor Company, Couzens was credited with some far-reaching and company-propelling business decisions – like increasing the factory workers' wages to five dollars a day (often credited to Henry Ford) and creating a bank loan system that allowed for time payments when purchasing a car.

His strained relations with the namesake-owner prompted Ford to buy out Couzens' shares for an estimated $30 million in 1919.

Couzens then spent time (1919-1922) as mayor of Detroit and was appointed to fill a U.S. Senate seat vacancy in 1922, an elected post he held until 1936.

The Senator was considered one of the Progressive Republicans, pushing for a graduated income tax would that tax the wealthy more heavily. He was also a noted philanthropist who helped establish the Children's Fund of Michigan with a $10 million donation. The fund, providing free dental work and health care for children from poor families lasted until the mid-1950's.

Couzen's history is peppered with donations for any number of philanthropic endeavors, including Children's Hospital in Detroit and a system of unemployment benefits that the federal government took as a model for the system we now have today.

One of his most lasting undertakings was his donation of over a half million dollars to establish a low-income housing project in West Bloomfield called Westacres, a residential development for industrial workers making $1,200-$1,800 annual income, on 874 acres surrounding Middle Straits Lake in the Union Lake area of Oakland County.

Westacres was one of the forerunners of platted subdivisions we see today. It started as a planned subdivision of 150 cinderblock homes that over the years developed into a community with a neighborly spirit. Westacres, over the years, developed a clubhouse, a credit union, weekly newsletter, tennis courts, annual art show and is still considered today to be a model community.

But back to Couzen's role as a senator and his push to allow congressional requests to view the income taxes of anyone, including members of the administrative branch and the President.

The law Congress is using to seek copies of President Trump's taxes was a direct result of a long-running battle between Couzens and then-Secretary of the Treasury Mellon. Mellon was attempting to push a revised tax code that would have cut taxes on the wealthy class and Couzen's proved to be his strongest opponent. Mellon intimated publicly that Couzens had not paid his fair share of taxes and the Senator suggested that the Secretary of the Treasury had looked at his personal income tax filings. Couzens, in the era of the politically charged Teapot Dome scandal, requested to see Mellon's tax information to determine if Mellon's tax cut legislation would benefit the secretary personally.

Couzens and his supporters in Congress launched an investigation into the treasury department, which at that time only answered to President Calvin Coolidge, who attempted to intercede and kill the investigation, taking the public stance that the Couzens' push for an investigation was purely political.

In response, Congress added to the Revenue Act of 1924 what is now known as Section 601, which gives three committees of the House and Senate the power to request to see personal and business taxes. Those committees include the House Ways and Means Committee, the Joint Committee on Taxation and the Senate Finance Committee. The section specifies that the tax information from the IRS, when it applies to a specific individual, is to be provided in closed session and members are forbidden from releasing the information publicly.

Fast forward to 2019 and we see much the same battle playing out again, and once again it involves wealthy members of the administration and Trump, who argues that his personal and business tax information should not be given to a congressional committee.

And we can all thank one of metro Detroit's progressive leaders who had the foresight and political wherewithal to push through Section 601 nearly 100 years ago.

David Hohendorf


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