2009-02-13 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

The More Things Change . . .
Commentary by Stuart W. Mirsky

Democrats have run in recent elections, and most successfully in the just completed presidential race, on a claim of integrity. They are principled and honest they've told us, not like those Republicans who stumbled in Congress with a series of high profile resignations, indictments and, in some cases, convictions on corruption charges (see former California Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham for starters).

President Obama promised to change all that, inspiring an electorate already sick of the Washington spectacle as the once high-flying American economy tanked, an unpopular war ground on, and a Republican president, who had become the lightning rod for all political grievances, hunkered down in the White House in his final days, trying to stay out of the spotlight long enough to do his party no further harm.

But what a difference a few weeks make. President Obama, who has had a remarkably smooth transition since his January 20 inauguration, thanks, in no small part, to the cooperation of the much reviled outgoing Bush administration, has seen his first legislative initiative stumble.

His Democratic allies in the House of Representatives, managed to lard into the so-called stimulus package worth well over $8 billion, spending on a slew of pet Democratic programs and concerns, ranging from sexually transmitted disease control to new cars for government agencies to stipends for Democratic party allies like ACORN, the voter registration organization that has been involved in a series of voter fraud cases across the country.

Rather than a bill primarily aimed at restoring the national infrastructure (rebuilding roads and electrical grids) we got one designed to fulfill forty years of unrequited Democratic dreams. Well, isn't that what the people voted for?

Of course, Republicans have only themselves to blame for lacking discipline and principle over the past few years. From adopting the big spending attitudes of the Democrats they supplanted in the nineties, to fielding uninspiring candidates, to standing by while members of their own party played footsie with lobbyists or with undercover police in airport bathroom stalls, they all but handed the Congressional majority and the presidency to the Democrats.

But the Democrats told us they were better than that — and promised to prove it from their first days in office. The proof, so far, has been a no-holdsbarred spending spree on the taxpayer's dime. And now it turns out those same Democrats, so quick to decry the alleged undertaxation in this country, aren't too eager to pay taxes themselves.

Former Senate Democratic Majority, and then Minority, Leader, Tom Daschle, withdrew his name from consideration for the post of Health and Human Services Secretary on February 3 after a firestorm had erupted over his non-payment of taxes on services he received gratis from a political supporter.

Daschle, it turns out, also had lobbying connections despite the fact that President Obama famously pledged that no lobbyists need apply to work in his White House. Oops!

Actually, though, Daschle's not the only one with these kinds of problems as the president has already had to issue a number of waivers from the no lobbyists rule for various new White House appointees, suggesting either that his promise to ban lobbyists no matter what was rash and ill-thought out, or that he wasn't sincere when he made it.

Nor is Daschle the only Obama appointee with tax problems. A day before Daschle withdrew his name from consideration, Nancy Killefer, an executive with consulting giant McKinsey & Co., withdrew hers for appointment as the federal government's first performance officer in the new administration, citing her "personal tax issue of DC unemployment tax" as well.

Although unpaid taxes did not stop the prior confirmation of President Obama's new Treasury Secretary, Timothy Geitner, it sent up enough red flags to make this a more sensitive issue for administration appointees attempting to follow in Geitner's footsteps as Killefer and Daschle have only now discovered. Nor are tax payment problems limited to Obama's Democratic appointees alone.

New York Democratic Congressman Charlie Rangel, Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee with oversight over the Internal Revenue Service and tax law, no less, is currently under investigation, according to Julian C. Zelizer, writing for CNN, "for allegedly using formal letterhead to solicit donations to a school to be named in his honor; helping one donor's company keep a tax loophole; having unreported income from a vacation villa; and having several rent-controlled apartments at below market rates, including one set up for his campaign operations in violation of state and local laws."

And then there's Democratic Senator Chris Dodd from Connecticut, almost a case unto himself. According to Robert Feinberg, a former employee of now defunct Countrywide Financial Corporation, one of the companies that brought us the recent financial collapse, Mr. Dodd received "VIP" treatment in what Wall Street Journal editorial writers call a "sweetheart deal" that would have saved the U.S. Senator $75,000 over the life of two loans he refinanced thanks to receipt of a below-market interest rate from Countrywide.

Besides the advantageous interest rate, the Senator also secured a "floatdown" commitment that enabled him to borrow at a lower rate if interest rates fell before he closed. Nice work if you can get it!

Senator Dodd qualified for such treatment because he was listed as a "friend of Angelo," Feinberg told the Journal. Angelo Mozillo, of course, was Countrywide's CEO and a regular lobbyist with the Senate Banking Committee, which Mr. Dodd just happened to chair.

The Senator from Connecticut has denied that he was aware of getting any special treatment — how could he have ever guessed? — and promised to make the records of the transactions in question public, but apparently stonewalled until February 2 when, according to the Journal's editors, he finally called in "a few reporters" to show them the papers. But, as the Journal notes, he refused to provide copies or allow the reporters the opportunity to read them through.

So the American electorate tossed out a bunch of Republicans in whom they had lost faith because of feckless and unrestrained spending and ethics questionslike these, questions that were amplified by the daily baying of a mainstream media that could barely disguise its keenness for a Democratic restoration — or for the election of presidential super-star Barack Obama, only to get . . . what? Business as usual?

How long will it take for Americans to get fed up with this crew as they did with the last and will the mainstream American media care as much as they cared when it was Republicans in the hot seat?

On the other hand, perhaps Barack Obama really will make good on his promise to deliver change we can believe in?

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