The Garrett Nomination and Pseudo-Ethics
Beth Garrett, President Obama’s choice to be Assistant Treasury Secretary for Tax Policy, has withdrawn her name from consideration. Beth didn’t say why, except for the usual boilerplate about her “personal family situation.” However, the Bloomberg story on her announcement quotes a friend, lobbyist Jeff Trinca, as saying she pulled out because she was unwilling to put her family through what has become a “harsh” confirmation process.
I’m really angry about this, as are so many others in the tax policy community. Beth would have been a fabulous assistant secretary, knowledgeable, fair, and hard-working. She is highly respected by both Democrats and Republicans and would have been an asset not only to the grossly-understaffed Treasury, but to the country.
While I have known Beth for many years, we are not close friends and I have no idea why she really withdrew. But if it was because she wanted to avoid the meat-grinder confirmation process, it is past time we rethink the way we choose senior government appointees.
I understand partisan politics, and that Washington has become something like Bosnia—an endless round of revenge killings for past slights, real or imagined. Democrats blocked some GOP nominee in 2002, so Republicans will do the same to Obama today.
But this is beyond partisanship. A highly-skilled tax expert agrees to make a huge financial sacrifice and put her personal life on hold, all to do her part to help improve the tax law. For her trouble, she is required to fill out massively intrusive personal disclosure forms (that the new Administration has made even more intrusive). She allows herself to be investigated by the FBI. Senate Finance Committee investigators flyspeck her tax returns. And if anyone finds so much as a math mistake, it is all paraded before the public. Earlier this year, Obama nominee Nancy Killefer had to withdraw her nomination for a top White House post because of a dispute over a few hundred bucks of District of Columbia unemployment tax.
It isn’t just about those who withdraw such as Garrett and Killefer. I know too many other highly-qualified people who are unwilling even to begin the process.
Oddly, people like Garrett and Killefer may be paying the price for Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s much more egregious failure to pay taxes he owed. Geithner was confirmed, but his cosmic punishment appears to be that he must now work without senior staff.
This is madness. There may be no one who can survive a gantlet of congressional investigators without some past sin being discovered. But making a mistake does not make you unfit for government service. The big losers are not the highly qualified lawyers, economists, and scientists who step back from this important work. The losers are the rest of us.
President Obama wants to change Washington. He could start by demanding that we stand-down on our new-found obsession with pseudo-ethics. The next time a nominee withdraws to avoid disclosure of some trivial error or even a bit of poor judgment, Obama should say, “You know what, my nominee made a mistake and I don’t care. It is not important.”