Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) -- Innocent Until Nominated

Posted on March 9, 2009

Mr. President, in the midst of much talk about bipartisanship and not much to show for it, I have a nomination for an issue upon which we can work together, and that is this: review the maze of conflicting forms, FBI investigations, IRS audits, ethics requirements, and financial disclosures to make it possible for President Obama and future Presidents to put together promptly a team to help them solve big problems. This is an urgent problem today because during the worst banking crisis since the Great Depression, the man in charge of fixing the crisis, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, apparently is sitting in his office without much help, at least from any Obama Presidential appointees. According to news accounts, among the key vacant positions at the Treasury Department are the Assistant Secretary for Tax Policy; the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Tax Policy; the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Tax Analysis; the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Tax, Trade, and Tariff Policy; and the Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Tax Affairs. The first choice for Deputy Secretary of the Treasury appears to have withdrawn her name from consideration. Four months after the President's election, according to TheBigMoney.com, the list of vacancies on the Treasury Department Web site shows that "Main Treasury Building is a lonely place, conjuring up visions of Geithner signing dollar bills one by one..., watering the plants, and answering the phones when he's not crafting a bank rescue plan." Of course, there are the career employees available and at least one holdover Assistant Secretary and various czars in the White House -- but even one of the czars has expressed concern about the slow pace of filling Treasury Department jobs at a critical time. Part of the problem may be attributed to the Treasury Secretary's boss, our impressive new President, who is nevertheless subject to the criticism that he is living over the store but not minding it. Presidents have many problems to solve, but no one ever suggested that the wisest course is to try to solve them all at once. There is a tradition that Washington, DC, can only do one thing well at a time. And Presidents are supposed to exclude from the White House the merely important issues so they may deal with the truly Presidential problems, which surely must not include being distracted by debates with radio talk show hosts. President Eisenhower, who knew something about leading complex organizations, said in 1952: "I will go to Korea." The country relaxed and elected him, confident that the general would end the Korean war. We need for President Obama to say in Eisenhower fashion "I will fix the banks" – and then stay home long enough to do it. Then the country might relax a little and gain some confidence that this might actually happen, which is the first step and perhaps the main step in economic recovery. But the President needs a team at Treasury to help persuade the American people that he can and will get the job done. The President has brought on himself some of the difficulty of putting together a team. In addition to having too many balls in the air at once, in my opinion, his standards for hiring sometimes seem to have the effect of disqualifying people who know something about the problem from being hired to solve the problem. But another part of the President's difficulty in filling jobs -- one that has afflicted every President since Watergate -- is the maze of investigations and forms that prospective senior officials must complete and the risk they run that they will be trapped and humiliated and disqualified by an unintentional and relatively harmless mistake. I voted against the nomination of Secretary Geithner because I thought it was a bad example for the man in charge of collecting the taxes not to have paid them. And I thought his excuse for not paying was not plausible. But that does not mean that we should disqualify every Presidential nominee for minor tax discrepancies that result from the complexity of our Byzantine Tax Code, a Tax Code which has reached 3.7 million words, according to a January report by the National Taxpayer Advocate, and which is badly in need of reform. I suspect very few Americans with complex tax returns can go through a multiple-year audit without finding something with which the IRS might disagree. Take the case of former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk, President Obama's nominee to be U.S. Trade Representative, who headlines report paid back taxes primarily because he failed to list as income -- and then take a charitable deduction on -- speaking fees that he gave away to charity. Common sense suggests, and his tax preparer thought, what Mr. Kirk did was appropriate. After all, he did not keep the money. The IRS apparently has a more convoluted rule for dealing with such things. In any event, the matter is so trivial as to be irrelevant to his suitability to be the trade nominee. Tax audits are only the beginning. There is the FBI full field investigation during which friends of the nominee are asked such questions as: Does he live beyond his means? When I was nominated for Education Secretary a few years ago, one of my friends replied to the FBI agent: Don't we all? There are Federal financial disclosures. Then there is the White House questionnaire, and, of course, the questions from the confirming Senate committee. The definition of what constitutes "income" on some forms is different than the definition of "income" on others. It is easy to make a mistake. This is not as bad as it could be. We have a Democratic President and a Democratic Congress with big majorities in both Chambers. So the nominees have gone through fairly quickly. But when the Congress is of a different party than the President, the congressional questionnaires expand and sometimes delay the nomination for more weeks. Washington, DC, has become the only place where you hire a lawyer, an accountant, and an ethics officer before you find a house and put your kid in school. The motto around here has become: "Innocent until nominated." Every legal counsel to every President since Nixon would, I suspect, agree that in the name of effective government, this process needs to be changed. Most have tried to change it, but in Washington style, new regulations pile up on top of old ones, creating a more bewildering maze. So I have this suggestion -- and one of the Senators to whom I want to make the suggestion is here today, the Senator from Connecticut. I suggest Senator Lieberman and Senator Collins, who are the chairman and ranking member of the committee with jurisdiction over this mess and who have a tradition of working well together, should set as a goal to clean it up by the end of the year. Invite all the former White House counsels of both parties to give their opinions. Consolidate and simplify the forms so we learn only what we need to know. To help with this, I suggest that Senators Lieberman and Collins form one of those "gangs" that we occasionally form in the Senate, maybe a dozen or more Senators equally divided among both parties -- some from the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and some not -- in order to limit the possibility that everyone will run away from the final recommendations because they fear someone might think Senators are not interested in ethical and good government. Good government right now means fixing the banks and having the best possible team to do it. As a Washington Post editorial writer said yesterday of the President: As he convened his "health care summit" at the White House...the stock market was hitting another 12-year low, General Motors was again teetering on the brink of insolvency and the country was still waiting to hear the details of the Treasury's proposal to bail out banks. Maybe we can make this grand bargain with our new President: If you will keep your eye on the ball -- in this case, fixing the banks so the economy will get moving again -- we will work in a bipartisan way to make it easier for you and for future Presidents to promptly assemble a team and govern us properly. I thank the Chair. I yield the floor.