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Another Two Bite the Dust

A Commentary by Susan Estrich

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

It was not a good day for ethics in government.

First, White House Performance Chief-nominee Nancy Killefer, who had two nannies and a personal assistant -- as we working mothers would say, a really LOT of help for teenagers -- withdrew her candidacy after it emerged that D.C. had gone so far as to put a lien on her fancy house for failure to pay payroll taxes.

Then, Tom Daschle, the much liked and admired former Senate majority leader, withdrew as the nominee for Secretary of Health and Human Services after it became clear that no one was buying his story that he thought having a car and driver for three years was just a nice gesture from a friend that didn't have any tax consequences for him.

All of this came literally hours after the president scolded Wall Street -- but did not take back any of that bailout money -- for having awarded themselves something in excess of $20 billion in bonuses for having ruined the American, and maybe the global, economy.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is one lucky guy: Sometimes the first jerk out of the box is the only one who makes it to first.

What planet are these people living on?

Or maybe the right question is: What's wrong with the rest of us?

I understand that accountants make mistakes. But a lien on your house is not the first response to an accountant's mistake. It's a last-ditch effort to collect taxes from someone who has refused to pay.

As for Geithner, it wasn't just his accountants who made a mistake. He signed papers acknowledging that he owed the taxes and still didn't pay them.

And Daschle? Did Daschle really think that friends give friends cars and drivers for three years expecting nothing in return, just a friendly gift that doesn't have to be considered income? Why don't I have friends like these? Why did I lose money in the relatively modest accounts I've set up for my retirement and my kids' education only to have the people who lost it for me reward themselves with big bonuses? I thought you got a bonus for making money, not losing it. Silly me.

There is something fundamentally rotten at the tippity-top of our economy, and I'm not talking about the bad loans that TARP is supposed to cover. I'm talking about a mentality that crosses party and gender lines and extends at least from Washington to New York, if not to Los Angeles and Chicago and some other big cities, that seems to be based on the notion that the rich have a right to get richer no matter who suffers as a result; that people who can afford three in help at home don't have any obligation to pay into the system that protects those people if they're injured on the job; that cars and drivers go with the turf, nothing special, nothing to trigger questions, let alone tax obligations.

Taxes? Who worries about taxes?

The answer is that most Americans do.

I remember as a kid, growing up, my father struggling to pay his taxes every year, ashamed when he couldn't, endlessly stressed when he fell behind, but never, not once, even tempted to cheat, understate his income or ignore his obligations. He died owing the IRS money, and I know the stress he felt. The shame contributed to his heart stopping, but I didn't blame the IRS for it.

I've never been good at coming up with dodges or shelters or any of that. I put aside the money, pay in quarterly, relieved that I can do it. I pay the taxes for my babysitter (one in help, thanks) and for my consulting income, and I don't think I deserve a gold star for doing it. And I don't expect to ever be appointed to anything. It's just right. It's what tens of millions of Americans who make less than Daschle and Killefer and Geithner and me do every day, and if it means they can't buy a home or a new car or afford three in help, so be it.

It's not about ethics in government, not really. Just about right and wrong.

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