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Give Barack Obama credit. Barely a month on the job and already he has increased tax revenues by hundreds of thousands of dollars. He nominated Timothy (Tiny Tim) Geithner to be Secretary of the Treasury and Geithner immediately discovered he'd forgotten to pay $48,000 in back taxes. So he paid them.
Then he chose Tom Daschle as his Secretary of Health and Human Services, and Daschle quickly coughed up $140 K in back taxes. Too late. He had to withdraw his candidacy; just after the president's candidate for chief government performance officer withdrew hers because of tax problems. She paid up, too.
I have two words for the Obama administration: H&R Block.
It's not been the happiest of times for ethics in public office, which is rapidly becoming an oxymoron. We have seen the governor of Illinois thrown from office by his legislature after it found him trying to sell the vacant Obama Senate seat on eBay. Then there is the revelation that Sen. Christopher Dodd, head of the Senate banking committee and outspoken opponent of tightening certain bank regulations was getting sweetheart loans from a bank that is also one of his biggest political contributors. What a coincidence.
All this, of course, happened not long after Ted Stevens, the longest-serving Republican in the Senate, was dis-elected by voters after being found guilty of using his office as a home improvement enterprise. His home.
And who could forget Louisiana Rep. William "the Refrigerator" Jefferson, he of the $90,000 in (very) cold cash? Did I mention Eliot Spitzer, the former governor of New York? I won't. Let lying dogs sleep, that's my motto.
It almost makes you wish for the good old days when President Dwight Eisenhower had to fire Sherman Adams, his right-hand man, for taking the gift of a vicuña coat from a grateful political patron. (Which inspired the apocryphal story that had Ike saying to Adams: "Vicuña? Vicuña waited until after the election?")
Today, Adams wouldn't have to resign. He'd be laughed out of office for thinking small.
How does all of this square with President Obama's pledge to bring a new integrity into the political process? Technically, it doesn't. However, I would argue it's just a matter of commendable idealism clashing with the harsh realities of political life.
We work within a system of capitalism that celebrates greed as a virtue, after all. That being said, it's unfair to say that it's OK for everyone in the private sector to take every dime that isn't nailed down (think Wall Street bonuses) while people seeking government service are expected to have lived the lives of monks who have taken vows of poverty.
You have to give people a little slack. If you're taking bribes and putting the cash in your freezer ... that's a definite no-no. If you just chisel a little on your income tax, well, maybe we can let you off with a warning. Or not.
It's a matter of degree. I've always thought that the proper rule of thumb in these matters is this:
Don't expect anyone to take less advantage of their situation than you would if you had their chances.
And here's another: Never trust a totally honest man. He has no sympathy for human failings.
I think we could eliminate half the hypocrisy in government by privatizing the U.S Senate. Instead of electing senators, as we do now, we could put Senate seats up for auction for corporations and special interests to bid on, with the money going into the Treasury.
What about the will of the people, you say? That's why we have the House of Representatives. A key point: No corporation or special interest could own shares in more than four senators (several fewer than they own now). The senators would be required to wear the corporate logos of their sponsors while on the floor of the Senate, sort of like NASCAR drivers.
The plan would slice through the hypocrisy and go a long way toward balancing the budget.
- Don Kaul is a two-time Pulitzer Prize-losing Washington correspondent who, by his own account, is right more than he's wrong. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.