There’s no such thing as an honest mistake in politics, just like there’s no such thing as gender parity when it comes to the scrutiny that candidates face when nominated to powerful positions in government.
Much has been made of the “tax” problems of President Obama’s choice to head the Treasury Department. Tim Geithner failed to pay Social Security and Medicare taxes for a domestic household employee whose legal immigration status lapsed during her employment. Supporters praised his stellar credentials and stints as president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and as a senior official of the International Monetary Fund. They insisted it was an “honest mistake.”
Geithner has been confirmed as Secretary of the Treasury (which fined him for his errors). But his “nanny tax” problem reveals the lingering two-tiered litmus test for nominees.
President Bill Clinton’s initial choice for attorney general was dynamo Zoe Baird, who had worked in the private sector, was a professor at Yale Law School and also served as a counsel to President Jimmy Carter. Like Geithner, Baird paid back taxes and penalties and also paid a fine because her domestic worker, like Geithner’s, was illegal.
Strangely enough, at least initially, Senate Republicans did not seize upon the issue to tank Baird and supported her nomination despite the “nanny tax” issue. But Baird was crucified by the press, abandoned by Senate Democrats and painted as an arrogant aristocrat too cheap to pay her share of tax burdens, forcing her to withdraw.
President George W. Bush’s first nominee for Secretary of Labor, Linda Chavez, experienced a similar flameout when reports surfaced that she housed and paid an undocumented domestic worker for years. Ditto Clinton’s second nominee, Kimba Wood, for hiring an undocumented worker even though it was legal to do so at the time.
Apparently it’s OK for Geithner to have made “honest mistakes” about his taxes because the country needs his genius in a time of economic crisis, but Baird, Wood and Chavez were expendable. Even the manner in which Caroline Kennedy recently withdrew her name for consideration as Gov. Paterson’s nominee for Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat was tainted by the suggestion that there was a “nanny” problem, presumably one to do with taxes.
Perhaps Geithner is the guy to bring the country around and gender has nothing to do with it. Perhaps the country has grown more tolerant on the issue of undocumented domestic workers during the past 16 years. But maybe it’s something as simple as the fact that when women make “honest mistakes,” the men who are ultimately responsible for deciding the women’s confirmation prospects are less forgiving. After all, women only make up 16 percent of the U.S. Senate. Until women reach parity in numbers, we will have a hard time overcoming these double standards.
Katherine B. Huang is an attorney and adjunct instructor in criminal justice at ASA College and adjunct instructor in the political science department at Queens College.
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