Best Man for the Job

by Nathan Bruschi | 2/11/09 1:19am

To quote Jon Stewart's impersonation of President Barack Obama, "Who's got two thumbs and can't vet for sh*t? (Points to himself) This guy!" Top-level Obama nominees Tom Daschle, Tim Geithner '83, Nancy Killefer and Hilda Solis each would have smoothly sailed to confirmation had it not been for their (or their spouse's) unfortunate habit of not paying sufficient taxes. Of that group, only Geithner was confirmed, while Solis' confirmation vote has been delayed and Daschle and Killefer have withdrawn their nominations.

My colleague Blair Sullivan '10 argues in her recent column ("Take the Money and Run," Feb. 5) that it is a forgone conclusion that individuals who have failed to pay their share of taxes (at least initially) should be barred from cabinet-level positions. Given the limited number of individuals with the expertise and political experience needed to effectively manage an entire government bureaucracy, and the fact that each of those who would be considered, by nature of their stature and wealth, are more likely to have complicated tax-filings, this lifetime ban seems hard to enforce.

In order to determine the proper reaction to these admittedly embarrassing tax problems, let's have a look at possible causes. The first possibility is that these officials are personally corrupt and consciously did not pay their taxes. While many individuals certainly do cheat on tax day, each of these prominent politicians must have already realized that his or her future career in politics or business was more valuable than the amounts left unpaid.

A second distinct possibility is that the tax law is too complex. When the government causes the creation of an entire industry devoted to the singular purpose of helping people file tax returns, you know something has gone horribly wrong. Even so, the very existence of such tax professionals and the guaranteed accuracy of their labor renders the "difficulty" argument unconvincing, especially among wealthy politicians who can afford to pay for their services.

The most likely reason for the mistakes is that the increased prominence of these appointments, coupled with intense media scrutiny and the public nature of these individuals' records, means that more eyes will be looking for smaller errors over longer periods of time. A team of 50 lawyers examining tax records is more likely to find errors in a tax return than the one individual who initially filed it. Given this analysis, it's difficult to claim that malice lies behind these mistakes and exclude these nominees from consideration.

With George W. Bush handing off the presidency like a sailor stepping off a sinking ship, Barack Obama needs the best people he can muster. Obama has made universal healthcare a goal for his administration, and a lofty one it is. Until pressure mounted over his tax issues, Tom Daschle, Obama's former Health and Human Services secretary nominee, was poised to be, in his own words, "the architect of America's health system reform," and shepherd of its passage in Congress. As a notable proponent of universal healthcare and a former Senate majority leader, Daschle was the perfect man for this position. However, Obama will now instead have to rely on someone else -- someone less qualified than Daschle -- to create the proposed program. When looking for a chief performance officer, who could do a better job than Killefer, the senior director of McKinsey & Co.'s Washington, D.C. office? When looking for a Treasury secretary, who better could serve than Geithner, the president of the New York Federal Reserve? Given today's dire circumstances, can the American people really afford to have anyone less qualified?

Especially in cases where a particular leader is required to bring about sorely needed changes, it may be necessary to separate personal failings from governing abilities. These tax revelations may cause us to question the judgment of the transgressors and of the person who appointed them. But, with the rise of Facebook, and the online documentation of every aspect in the lives of a rising generation, revelations of personal failings among leaders can only increase. If the problems have been resolved and no criminal proceedings were ever brought, shouldn't we examine what good these people can do in the future, rather than what ill they have done in the past?