Take the Money and Run

by Blair Sullivan | 2/5/09 3:19am

Back in December, President-elect Obama announced his nomination of former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., for secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services and director of the new White House Office of Health Reform. On Tuesday, Daschle withdrew the nomination, following several days of controversy surrounding the revelation that he had failed to pay $128,000 in taxes. I find it disturbing that I'm even writing an opinion column about this matter -- it seems as though there can't possibly be another side to the argument that people who don't pay taxes should not hold cabinet-level positions in government. But the sad truth is that the men and women who run our country don't see it the same way.

Until a few days ago, Daschle was prepared to fight hard to secure the necessary confirmation votes from his former colleagues in the Senate, and to see that his nomination was approved. Daschle succeeded in gaining support from some of his fellow Democrats. Senator Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., took Daschle's side, writing off his tax evasion as "a bad mistake." On Monday, President Obama declared that he "absolutely" stood by Daschle, despite the circumstances.

The next day, however, Daschle finally withdrew his nomination. Maybe a sudden, delayed sense of shame and guilt came over him. Or,perhaps his resignation was the result of several major liberal news publications -- including The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Boston Globe and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette -- demanding that he take such action. When The New York Times calls for the withdrawal of the nomination of a Democrat, you know things are pretty serious.

Perhaps the Daschle controversy can be viewed positively in comparison to that of the nomination of Timothy Geithner '83, Obama's successful nominee for secretary of the Treasury. This former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York failed to pay $34,000 in taxes. Like Daschle, Geithner garnered support from some fellow Democrats. Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., supported the nomination, declaring Geithner's multiple failures to pay taxes to be "honest mistakes." Pretty big mistakes. Especially for someone whose career consists of dealing with financial matters. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., also defended Geithner's tax errors, dismissing the events as "a few little hiccups." These "little hiccups" amount to more money than some Americans earn in an entire year. Despite the fact that the Senate Finance Committee was made aware of Geithner's financial situation in early December, Geithner's nomination was confirmed by a substantial margin of 60 votes to 34.

The majority of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have stayed silent regarding both Daschle and Geithner. Perhaps these lawmakers don't want to put themselves in the spotlight, for fear that their own failures might be revealed. Alternatively, it could be that, according to Republican Senator Jim DeMint, R-S.C., these lawmakers are of the "mentality that they must protect one of their own." Whatever the reason, their behavior of sitting on the sidelines is almost as disappointing as the scandals themselves.

The hypocrisy of these situations is outrageous. It is simply unacceptable that those at the highest echelons of government don't obey the law. All Americans are required to pay income taxes, and the vast majority believes that their taxes are too high. The people at the top have to lead by example. Why should people feel compelled to file honest tax returns when the lawmakers themselves do not? Obama promised the country hope and change in the wake of hard economic times, but his administration's reputation has already been marred by the Geithner and Daschle tax scandals, as well as the withdrawn nominations of Bill Richardson and Nancy Killefer.

How can the American people take such an administration seriously when its leaders are acting on the same principles of greed and irresponsibility that brought our country into this financial mess in the first place? As the debacle on Wall Street has demonstrated, if nobody is motivated to follow the rules because it's the right thing to do, society will break down.