“We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.”
— Leona Helmsley
The list of Obama nominees not to have paid their taxes continues to grow. The latest confessor is Kathleen Sebelius, governor of Kansas, former state representative, former insurance honcho, and Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS). On March 31, it was revealed that Sebelius had “forgotten” to pay almost $8,000 in taxes. Oops.
Earlier, Tom Daschle—former South Dakota senator, former Senate Majority Leader, Obama’s original choice for HHS Secretary, and a man generally regarded as the one person in the country capable of ushering in a national health care plan—turned out to owe so much in unpaid taxes he was forced to withdraw.
Daschle, a corporate lobbyist (despite how hard they tried to “spin” his position, when you make $2 million in one year from industry fees, that’s what you are, a lobbyist) owed more than $128,000 in unpaid taxes. His withdrawal was a stunning disappointment to the administration.
During confirmation proceedings, Timothy Geithner, our Secretary of the Treasury, was forced to go on national television and apologize for not having paid over $34,000 in taxes. The man who, as Treasury Secretary, would be the titular head of the Internal Revenue Service apparently didn’t know how to fill out his tax form.
Nancy Killefer, Obama’s nominee for Chief Performance Officer, also had to withdraw due to tax problems. She threw in the towel with the investigation barely underway, choosing to nip it in the bud before too much was revealed. No thanks, she said. You can keep your appointment and I’ll keep my privacy. Adios.
And Ron Kirk, Obama’s choice for U.S. Trade Rep, was shown to owe $10,000 in back taxes, which he agreed to pay only after it was made clear that his appointment to a big-time government position was contingent upon repayment. Makes you wonder how amenable he and the others would have been to making restitution had their appointments not hung in the balance.
These were the ones we actually heard about, the ones who had made it all the way to final cut, the ones whose names had been formally submitted as nominees. It doesn’t take into account those who, presumably, were removed from consideration when red flags went up in the first round of vetting, or those who dropped out voluntarily after meeting with their tax accountants.
Of course, it’s possible, as some have suggested, that these wealthy people were the victims of red tape, that the complexity of the U.S. tax code is the real culprit here. Yes, that’s possible. Still, it’s odd how these people always err on the side of paying too little than too much. How refreshing it would be for an audit to reveal that someone making millions of dollars had actually paid a few thousand too much.
Unfortunately, the opportunity for President Obama to step up to the plate was lost here. Instead of immediately withdrawing the name of any nominee who’d shown they failed to pay their taxes, and making it clear that he wanted honest, fair-minded people in his administration, he took the other approach. He became complicit in providing cover and excuses.
The opportunity to prove that he fully intended to “change” the way Washington did business, beginning with flushing out the smug, the slippery, the uber-privileged, was ignored. It could have been a defining moment not only for Obama, but for the country. Instead, he demonstrated that his allegiance lay with the powers that be.
This whole thing should have been embarrassing for everyone—not only the people caught “cheating” on their taxes, but for Obama’s advisors as well. But, wild ambition being what it is, these revelations were more or less shrugged off. Those who talked their way out of it have prestigious government jobs, and those who were dropped from consideration have already moved on with their careers.
Still, critics of the administration will surely say that the reason rich liberals don’t mind Obama’s plan to raise taxes on the wealthy is because they have no intention of paying them. And we sink deeper into cynicism.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright (“Americana,” “Larva Boy”) and writer, was a former labor union rep. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org