By David Morgan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A congressional tax oversight committee will not seek U.S. President Donald Trump's tax returns despite calls from Democrats for a review to determine possible business ties to foreign countries including Russia, the panel's Republican chairman said on Monday.
Defying decades of precedent, Trump has refused to release his tax documents, which Democrats say could show whether his business empire poses any conflicts of interest as he moves forward on issues ranging from tax reform to foreign relations.
"If Congress begins to use its powers to rummage around in the tax returns of the president, what prevents Congress from doing the same to average Americans?" House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady told reporters.
"Privacy and civil liberties are still important rights in this country, and (the) Ways and Means Committee is not going to start to weaken them."
The Texas Republican was responding to questions about a Feb. 1 letter from Representative Bill Pascrell, a Ways and Means Democrat who asked Brady to obtain Republican Trump's returns from the U.S. Treasury so the committee could review them in closed session and vote on whether to make them public.
Pascrell later said he continued to hope for action, saying: "Our committee must respond by using its legal authority as Congress has in the past to provide proper oversight. This is Checks and Balances 101."
Experts say federal law authorizes the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Finance Committee and the Joint Committee on Taxation to examine individual tax returns.
The two other panels are headed by Senator Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican who dismissed the idea of seeking Trump's returns last week.
House Republicans contend that the authority to examine tax returns was meant to ensure the proper administration of the tax code. Brady said his panel was doing just that in 2014, when it released confidential tax data during a probe of IRS treatment of conservative group applications for nonprofit status.
Pascrell's letter said Trump's business empire involves state-owned enterprises in China and the United Arab Emirates, Russia and Saudi Arabia. "It is imperative for the public to know and understand his...financial positions in domestic and foreign companies," Pascrell wrote.
Brady said the letter misrepresented the law's intent to promote confidentiality and privacy. "I've read his letter and I disagree with all of it," he said.
(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Andrew Hay and Grant McCool)