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Geithner Hits Back (briefly)

Tim Geithner has always won people over with his humble, self-effacing style--even people not necessarily disposed to like him. In my profile of him last fall, I described how he once even offered to trade parking spaces with an older Treasury colleague who'd been exiled to an out-of-the-way lot.

Suffice it to say, that approach came in handy amid last week's tax revelations, and Geithner leaned on it pretty heavily at today's confirmation hearings, too.* He piled up self-abasing apologies and plaintively noted that he'd missed "many opportunities to catch the mistake." It was his fault, he took full responsibility, he'd been careless--on and on it went. When Sen. Jim Bunning pointed to an IMF tax document he'd had blown up, Geithner conceded he should have read such documents more carefully. At one point, Sen. Jon Kyl held up another IMF document Geithner had signed every year. "You must have realized [your tax obligation] when you signed this," Kyl said. Geithner one-upped him: "It's not just yearly documents," he said, adding that he also got quarterly statements about his tax liability and that it was probably even apparent from his regular paycheck. This is akin to getting pulled over doing 50 in a 35 and telling the cop you'd not only seen the sign, but your wife had been pointing it out for miles.

Which accounts for how momentarily jarring it was when the contrition offensive briefly paused. It happened at the end of the hearing, when the committee room was empty except for Kyl, Max Baucus (the Democratic chairman), and maybe another senator or two. Baucus seemed happy to let Kyl run at the tax issue from every angle--maybe as a way to blow off steam that could be put to less constructive use elsehwere. Kyl took full advantage. He asked some version of the following question at least four times: In 2006, when IRS auditors made you pay back-taxes for 2003 and 2004, did it not occur to you that you'd probably made the same mistake in 2001 and 2002, even if you didn't have to pay those taxes under the statute of limitations? Geithner's basic response was: I paid what the IRS said I owed, and they told me it was settled.

Finally Kyl snapped: "Would you answer my question rather than dancing around it, please!" Which, in turn, elicited Geithner's best moment of the day:

Senator, I have worked in public service all my life. My first job was in the Treasury over 20 years ago. I would never put myself in a position where I was intentionally not meeting my obligations as an American taxpayer. In this case, I made a series of mistakes… [But] I take those obligations extremely seriously...

Exactly. It's possible Geithner was trying to scam the government out of $30,000. But that's hard to square with a career spent almost entirely in the public sector at an opportunity cost of millions, if not tens of millions, of dollars. Humility and contrition are worthy stances. But it was nice to see Geithner take a swing, if only fleetingly.

*Quotes are all from contemporaneous notes. I'll clean them up when I get a transcript or when the video is downloadable.  

--Noam Scheiber