By Benjamin Cole
In her recent book, The Art of the Public Grovel, Susan Wise Bauer traces the influence of 19th-century evangelical confession upon modern political speech. From Bill Clinton’s infamous intern scandal to the recent descent of superstar pastor Ted Haggard and numerous points in between, Bauer explores the way that acknowledgements of wrongdoing have adopted the language and emotion of evangelical piety as essential to the political survival of transgressing public figures.
While Bauer’s treatment is concerned primarily with sins of the flesh, most of her observations hold true for sins less titillating to the body politic. Sins like those of former senator Trent Lott, who got “caught” paying tribute to the career to an aging South Carolina senator who once was an outspoken segregationist, or like two of President Obama’s recent cabinet nominees of who failed to pay a portion of their income taxes.
Since the 111th Congress began, the confirmation of the president’s nominees has been — for the most part — a tranquil sea of uninterrupted approval. Nevertheless, two of the men who would have been most responsible for implementing President Obama’s domestic agenda — Timothy Geithner at Treasury and Tom Daschle at Heath and Human Services — hit troubled waters in the confirmation process.
The unpaid tax burden of the newly confirmed treasury secretary was relatively minimal. His sin was understandable. Before the Senate Finance Committee, Geithner acknowledged his “careless and avoidable mistakes,” though he noted they were “unintentional.” When the final reckoning of his tax burden was complete, Geithner paid the federal government a meager $50,000 and received confirmation by a vote of 60-34.
Then Feb. 2, Health and Human Services secretary nominee Tom Daschle released his own pious confession for failure to pay back taxes in excess of $140,000. It seems that the former senator didn’t think it necessary to claim the benefit of a company-provided limousine or hundreds of thousands of dollars in consulting fees.
In a multi-page mea culpa sent to the Senate Finance Committee, Daschle apologized for his “errors,” and acknowledged the “deep and disappointing embarrassment” that his tax bungling had caused. Like Geithner before him, Daschle was careful to locate his sins under the rubric of “unintentional.” Unlike Geithner, the pressures on Daschle to withdraw mounted. But by Feb. 3, Daschle had removed himself from consideration and became the first confirmation casualty of the Obama administration.
During my years as a Baptist pastor, I learned a few things about sin and the confession thereof. Whether walking a deacon through a heart-wrenching process of post-adultery marital reconciliation or chasing down teenage addicts of various and sundry controlled substances, I’ve been schooled in the subtle differences between sincere catharsis and half-hearted self-immolation. I’ve learned when public confession is necessary, and when it’s not. I’ve also learned to distinguish between greater and lesser sins, between those requiring a lash on the back and those requiring a slap on the wrist.
It seems to me that neither Timothy Geithner nor Tom Daschle have committed sins sufficiently venial to justify much in the way of political penance. Rather, their sins have exposed a weakness in the law as much as the law-breakers.
At its most recent publication, Title 26 of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations — most commonly referred to as the tax code — is 3,387 pages, or roughly three times longer than a large-print version of the King James Bible. It is complicated, convoluted, and utterly incomprehensible. And if a former United States senator and a member of the Federal Reserve Board are incapable of navigating its complexities and rendering unto Caesar his prescribed tribute, then the rest of us have little chance.
I don’t think that either man’s tax transgression is a grave indictment on his character. Sure, it’s an embarrassment — but who among us has not pulled out our hair, screamed and wailed come every April 15th? But for some reason — in spite of endless frustration and perennial calls for simplification — the tax code maintains its enshrined and lofty position among the guiding documents of American political life with an amendment threshold almost as foreboding as the Constitution itself.
I suppose that a little prodding around every American’s tax records would result in a few unintentional mistakes. Ignorance of the law, as we all know, is no excuse for its violation. Neither does the multiplied company of fellow transgressors provide a defense. But ignorance of a cumbersome and complicated system of laws like the U.S. tax code should qualify for some special dispensation of forgiving grace.
The public inquisition of Secretary Geithner and would-be secretary Daschle for their tax sins is to be expected given the partisan climate of Washington politics. It seems to me, however, that once the country is through these woods, prudence demands a serious revision and reduction of a tax code that neither former members of Congress nor future members of the Cabinet can get right.