Candor is good, but it can't cover all the sins of politics

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Here's why I don't like the IRS or the U.S. Tax Code: They promote sin.

There are so many temptations in our lives. Why do we need a government bureaucracy to lure us down paths of unrighteousness?

I am not defending any wrongdoing regarding complete and accurate tax returns. I may not like paying taxes, but I'm not going to risk a stay in a federal pokey to protest the complexity and inequity of our nation's tax laws.

And I am certainly not offering any excuses for the likes of those who, on the verge of top posts in the executive branch, turn out to be tax cheats.

These individuals, who somehow have done well in their public-service careers, maintain they didn't deliberately not pay the taxes they owed. They claim their failure to pay was an oversight. They say they didn't know ... . Know what? What about "Ignorance of the law is no defense"?

Honestly, I don't know if these folks simply made a mistake or not. All of us make mistakes. And, as I said at the outset, most of us are tempted at one time or another to skirt the tax rules.

From my vantage point, this is a lose-lose situation. If the nominees who owe back taxes don't know how to fill out a tax return or hire competent people to do it for them, do I really want them running anything in my nation's government? And if they are ordinary cheats, do I want them holding powerful government posts?

No. And no.

President Obama has adopted candor to ward off a drawn-out hoopla over the misguided nominations. "It's my mistake," he has said in interviews after his nominees have left the limelight.

The president, after all, made cleaning up this kind of government wallowing a key issue in his campaign. So far, however, his record is wishy-washy. Some of the questionable nominees have withdrawn from consideration. Others have been confirmed and are now making decisions that could land the rest us, including common newspaper columnists, in a cell if we pull the same kind of stunts.

Which leads to two observations:

1. The president's willingness to apologize when his nominees go flaky is, in a way, a sign that Obama really intends to reform Washington. When was the last time a president admitted he was flat wrong on anything?

The difficulty with this new tack, however, is that it doesn't put a stop to the shenanigans that have made us so weary of politics. It simply isn't enough for a president -- or anyone else, for that matter -- to make bad choices and then expect Americans to forgive and forget because he's willing to sit in a pillory for a few hours.

Even though I appreciate Obama's willingness to come clean on his bad choices, I cannot -- nor, do I think, should the American public -- overlook those decisions just because he is frank and earnest.

On the whole, I like a president who admits his mistakes, but I prefer a president who makes choices that don't require an apology.

2. The clubbiness of the U.S. Senate has never been more apparent than its votes to confirm Cabinet nominees who, if they pulled the same stunt in Cape Girardeau or Sikeston or Kennett, would be facing federal sanctions if not possible prison terms.

Senators were lined up to approve even the nominees who withdrew from consideration. Perhaps our senators believe appointees to high government posts have learned from their mistakes. The only problem I see with that line of thinking is that they don't seem to get educated until they are caught red-handed.

Or could it be that our senators are willing to go along with questionable nominations in order to keep the spotlight away from themselves? Am I suggesting that any one of our 100 U.S. senators has failed to pay taxes or committed some other crime? No, but I am suggesting that their cavalier approval of nominees in the face of egregious errors makes me wonder.

I hope, really and truly, that President Obama continues to be frank and open about his decisions, even his bad ones. But I hope he doesn't expect us to go along with everything he does simply because he wears his failures on his sleeve. His confessed mistakes so far have been avoidable. Let's hope he also has learned a lesson and digs a little deeper from here on out.

jsullivan@semissourian.com

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