Symptoms of infectious capitol diseases

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By Jim Flynn

Up until World War II, Washington, D.C. was a political, cultural, and economic backwater. Except for ambitious politicians and lifetime job seekers, most Americans worked and lived in the real world of elsewhere.

Over time, fumes from the Potomac River infected Washington politicians and bureaucrats with a peculiar sense of uniqueness. They became unable to “get it.” The infection is highly contagious, has a wide range of symptoms, and has no known cure. One of the worst effects is premature memory loss.

There are always a few politicians and bureaucrats who seem to have partial immunity to the Potomac virus. They are referred to as mavericks, blue dogs (conservative Democrats), rhinos (Republicans in name only), and various unprintable epithets.

During the stimulus bill debates, Congress was most responsive to a swarm of lobbyists and special interests seeking handouts, even though only 35 percent of citizens were in favor of their reckless spending ideas. Many Congress people didn’t even hear it, let alone get it. Loss of hearing is another symptom of the Potomac virus.

Then came the parade of insiders summoned for duty in the new president’s cabinet. Some had been away from Washington for a few years but still suffered the effects of don’t-get-it virus.

Bill Richardson, governor of New Mexico, former congressman, energy secretary, ambassador, and all around competent good guy had to pull out of his nomination to be Secretary of Commerce because of an inquiry into a possible connection between state contracts and campaign contributions.

Then came the case of Timothy Geithner, now Secretary of the Treasury, who pleaded ignorance of the tax code as an excuse for his very late payment of $43,000 in taxes on overseas earnings. Gee Mr. Secretary, it’s under “Overseas Income” on Page 20 of the 1040 instruction booklet you received in the mail.

Nancy Killefer, nominee for chief performance officer, of all jobs, did an “Oh, shucks,” about failure to pay unemployment taxes. It’s amazing that ambitious public servants don’t get it until they reach for a higher rung on the political ladder. Running for luck is don’t-get-it by another name.

The biggest don’t-getter was former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, another talented guy who had to pony up $128,000, plus interest, on unreported income. The untaxed income must have been a bundle. Mr. Daschle rushed to pay the taxes due, apparently hoping for a pass. He didn’t get it.

In the secret world of Washington there’s a persistent assumption that American citizens don’t get it. On the contrary, that’s why Republicans are still puzzled by their recent loss of power, and why Mr. Obama got stung by thinking his nominees’ tax skipping would be overlooked by voters.

Public disapproval of the stimulus/bailout struggles was another don’t-get-it in Congress and at the White House. What did they expect when neither they nor the Bush administration could give a straight answer to questions about where the money went from the first bailout bill?

A variant of the Potomac virus is the “don’t-give-a-damn” syndrome which infects executives of failing business organizations. They get it, but they don’t give a damn what the public or politicians think. Just send the money.

The best example of executive contempt came from Wells Fargo & Co.

After receiving $25 billion in bailout money, the bank scheduled a series of outings in the highest priced Las Vegas hotels. In response to the public disclosure, Wells Fargo said “Recognition events are part of our culture.” Sounded like a case of don’t-give-a-damn with complications of “don’t-get-it.”

Bailout money uncovered a number of other don’t-give-a-damn infections. American International Group (AIG) scheduled a $500,000 junket to a posh spa for executives right after receiving $85 billion. Bank of America did a Super Bowl bash after getting its $45 billion share of the bailout bonanza. Morgan Stanley had a milder form of don’t-give-a-damn virus. They scheduled just a few days for its high rollers in Palm Beach, probably because they received only $10 billion.

When news broke that Wall Street investment firms had paid out $18 billion in bonuses just prior to receiving bailout funds, the Associated Press story was headlined, “Washington and Wall Street blind to public anger.” Convenient blindness is another symptom that they don’t-give-a-damn, even when they get it.

Jim Flynn was formerly a corporate counsel, served in military intelligence during the Korean War, and once aspired to be a newspaper columnist.