Geithner confirmed — but with bipartisan “nays”

The U.S. Senate voted to confirm Timothy F. Geithner tonight, but the vote was closer than expected with more “nays” than any previous nominee of President Barack Obama. The 60-34 confirmation was also the first nomination vote of the Obama administration with any Democrat voting no.

Because of the nagging questions remaining about Geithner’s failure to pay four years worth of self-employment taxes and his role in designing the Troubled Asset Relief Program, four members of the Democratic caucus joined with 30 Republicans in opposing Geithner’s nomination. (10 Republicans unfortunately voted for him). Those four are Tom Harkin of Iowa, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the independent self-proclaimed socialist who usually caucuses with Democrats.

“Had he not been nominated for treasury secretary, it’s doubtful that he would have ever paid these taxes,” Byrd said, according to the Associated Press report. Harkin asked during the Senate floor debate how someone of Geithner’s supposed “financial sophistication” could have made such careless mistakes, and not corrected them for all the years he made the errors until Obama nominated him. “How can Mr. Geithner speak with any credibility or authority?” Harkin said.

A Rasmussen poll late last week found that 41 percent of Americans oppose Geitner’s nomination and two-thirds think that his confirmation would show that different standards and rules apply to powerful people. This impression was confirmed by statements such as that of Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., that “in normal times, that would be enough to cause me to oppose his nomination, but these are not normal times.” The perception that both corporations and individuals can be “too big to fail” because of their supposed importance undermines the very credibility needed to restore confidence in our financial system.

While his serious tax infractions should have still disqualified him from heading a department that enforces the nation’s tax laws, there are steps Geithner can take to assuage these concerns. He can call for an end to government policies that prop up failing institutions with taxpayer dollars. The failures could be orderly and arranged to minimize damage to the financial systems, but big corporations must be allowed to fail, just as small businesses do every day. That would send a message that no business or individual plays by a different set of rules.

And given his own serious breach of the tax laws, which he only corrected completely after being chosen as Treasury Secretary nominee, Geithner should show sympathy with the difficulties of individuals and small businesses in dealing with the complexities of taxes and regulations. New financial regulations from the Treasury Department should be carefully thought out so that they don’t hinder small investors and entrepreneurs. If Geithner reflects on and learns from his personal and policy errors, he can be a more effective Treasury Secretary.