Monday, January 26, 2009
Geithner at Senate confirmation hearing: "The software ate my tax return"
The Senate has voted 60 to 34 to confirm Timothy "Honest Mistake" Geithner to be Secretary of the Treasury. That's a comfortable margin, and Geitner's nomination was never in any danger of going down. But according to Bloomberg News, it's also the closest margin to confirm any of the 24 Treasury Secretaries who have served since World War II.
The 34 "nay" votes included leading liberal Democrats Tom Harkin, Russ Feingold and Robert Byrd, as well as respected Republicans, such as John McCain, Susan Collins, Richard Lugar and Arlen Specter, who are among those on the GOP side of the aisle that President Obama is eager to draw into a post-partisan coalition to tackle the nation's economic and financial crisis together.
Building that coalition may be a bit harder though, when you've nominated a tax cheat to oversee the aggressive and far-reaching federal actions that may be needed. Obama has all but called Geithner an indispensable man -- in effect, the only person in America with exactly the right skills and experience to run Treasury at what is unquestionably a very challenging time. When Obama announced his economic team, like so many others, I was impressed that he had assembled such an outstanding, professional and pragmatic group, including Geithner, Larry Summers, Christina Romer, Peter Orszag and Paul Volcker.
However, I agree with the 34 dissenters that no one is indispensable. There are many men and women in this nation of 300 million who have not tried to avoid their taxes and who would do as fine a job as Geithner. As Republican Senator Collins said of Geithner's attempt to blame his failure to pay four years worth of payroll taxes on "careless mistakes" arising from the complexity of the tax code, "It has become clear to me that this is not merely a matter of complexity leading to mistakes, but of inexcusable negligence."
I'd go further than that. I don't believe for a moment that Geithner didn't know that he owed these taxes. His employer, the International Monetary Fund, informed him clearly about this tax liability, and he actually applied to the IMF for reimbursement of the employer portion of the FICA tax, even though he had not paid the tax. I think it's obvious that, for whatever stupid or crazy reason for a man in his position, he tried to game the "complex" tax system and only ponied up the money he owed when he got caught, first, by the IRS and, later, by the Obama transition vetting process.
Democratic Senator Harkin summed up what was wrong with this nominee by asking, "How can Mr. Geithner speak with any credibility or authority?" How indeed.
The remaining mystery is why Obama and his team stuck with Geithner even though they knew about his tax transgressions way back in December. Of course, I assume that Obama feels that Geithner's credentials and suitability for the job are so much better than those of anyone else he might name that running through some flak to get him confirmed is worth it. But that's not really the issue.
Presidents are often willing to contend with some controversy to get appointee they want. Currently, Obama may face worse opposition to his choices for Attorney General and Secretary of Labor (and perhaps Director of the CIA). Geithner's job, though, entails conceiving and mounting an unprecedented effort to turn around the economy. The success of Obama's Presidency rests, for all practical purposes, on the success of this effort.
So why would Obama obdurately insist on an appointee who starts off with something less than the solid confidence of the public, the press and the Congress? Geithner will remain an easy target for mockery and scorn, when what's needed is someone who can forge cooperation and engender respect, even when unforeseen but probably inevitable missteps or setbacks in implementing new policies occur.
What do you think of Geithner's appointment? Join the discussion by posting a comment.
Posted by J. E. Burke at 7:30 PM