Is this really the best person for the job?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Despite some hiccups in the process, Obama has done a mostly good job when it comes to appointing skilled people for various positions. He has certainly done a better job than the previous President. In almost all instances, while I may have some serious philosophical differences, I can't find any problems with the appointees' intelligence or experience, which is why I was disappointed with his nomination of Mary Smith to head the DOJ Tax Division.

I know this doesn't hold the same level of scrutiny as Cabinet level post or a Supreme Court nomination, but this is still an important position. Not surprising, Republicans are mad about her lack of experience. Unlike some of their problems with Sotomayor, they seem to have a legitimate complaint. Ms. Smith's resume can be found on her firm's website. It is very impressive. She did well in school and has published a variety of articles. She also seems to be a very skilled litigator and has extensive experience in securities law. Unfortunately, I can't find anything in there that shows a high level of expertise in tax law.

Now I am no expert in tax law. I took two classes in tax law, one in income taxes and the other in estate and gift taxes. It wasn't my cup of tea and will readily admit that I struggled with much of it. In my opinion, tax law is a very complex field that has frequent, major changes. This is one reason that the most popular LL.M. degree is offered in taxation. Mary Smith may turn out to be a great choice, but I would prefer that he pick a person with a stronger tax background.

15 comments:

B Mac 11:21 AM  

IMHO, I think we can glean a lot about the intended direction of a DOJ Division by the appointment of the various Assistant AGs.

For example, when Obama appointed Lanny Breuer (a guy with a significant white collar background) to head the Criminal Division, it suggested to me that the Administration was looking more in that direction, as opposed to the usual "guns and drugs" route.

I don't know much about Mary Smith, but her work with corporate clients may provide some hints as to the direction of the Tax division.

Either that, or Obama realized that he hadn't really appointed many Native Americans to anything.

Smitty 11:34 AM  

Just curious, steves, if you or Volokh or someone has an idea of who a better tax chief might be? Not a critical or scathing comment at all...just curious, as I have no CLUE about who exists out there with such an expertise.

I am not suggesting that we should just appoint ANYBODY to these under-sub-secretary position a-la the Bush Admin. But is there a level of nitpicky here?

Smitty 11:40 AM  

I mean, yell about a horse racing chief appointed as FEMA director. But the deputy director of the tax bureau sub cabinet position? Sure, we want more than "breathes air," but seeking the nation's greatest tax expert might be too qualified for this position and better served in a higher position. Like TREASURY.

steves 3:01 PM  

I haven't heard too much on this appointmnet because, as you note, it isn't all that high profile. I don't have a specific name, but a person with an LL.M. in tax wouldn't be a bad place to start. That wouldn't be mandatory, but I would also want someone that had some experience with tax cases or had represented a person or company in tax court.

There are probably thousands of lawyers with this kind of expertise, so I would think they would be a good starting point. This certainly isn't as bad as Bush's FEMA choice and I suppose it is a little nitpicky, but is it really asking that much to have the potential head of the DOJ Tax Division be a person that has extensive experience in taxes?

B Mac 3:14 PM  

Dale Earnhardt knows more about cars than Steve Jobs.

Put Steve Jobs at the head of GM, and he'd probably do fine. Put Dale Earnhardt at the head of GM, and I don't think things would go well.

Running a DOJ division isn't just about knowing the specific subject matter. It's mostly a management position. Sure, there will have to be decisions made relating to specific tax questions, but there are thousands of lawyers at Justice to sift through the Federal Tax Codes. Hell, give me Westlaw access and a few weeks, and I could get up to speed on a given case.

Her job is going to be "big picture." Given her resume, she seems qualified.

Bob 3:18 PM  

"Put Steve Jobs at the head of GM, and he'd probably do fine."

No he wouldn't. There is s huge difference between building $200 ipods in China than building cars, the most expensive, most advanced consumer product on the market...but that's another post for another day.

Bob 3:33 PM  

The one appointment that really pisses me off is Mitchell Humperdink, Deputy Director of Lawn Maintenance, Irrigation and Tree Trimming – south lawn division.

Sure Humperdink has a fine resume with 24 plus years in the lawn mowing and tree trimming industry, but did he really pay his dues politically? Despite his background as a precinct delegate in Adar Kentucky, (bluegrass country) I think not.

Further, Humperdink’s position on spring use of high nitrogen fertilizer just doesn’t sit well with me considering its negative impact on root growth.

In today’s age, I think Obama would have better chosen someone with a more mainstream view on late morning watering as well as fertilizer usage.

I suppose Obama’s choice does break ground due to Humperdink’s Luxembourg heritage – a first for this position, but really did he really need to play to the desires of the U.S. Turf Grass Council? Personally, the Grass Growers Association ware really early Obama supporters and should have earned the nod.

Mr Furious 3:51 PM  

I'm with B Mac. Expertise in the corporate world might mean more in this position than a nuts and bolts tax code expert.

For good or for ill...

I'm hoping for good—rehauling and/or enforcing a stricter corprate tax regime. But since all-things-Treasury have been nothing but utter disappointment, I'm skeptical.

steves 5:08 PM  

Bob, you are right, Humperdink is in no way qualified for that post ; )

B Mac, I would argue that running a DOJ division probably requires more than just a good knowledge of managing people, especially when it is a specific division. I am not suggesting that they have to spend months and months finding some brilliant tax expert, but is it that hard to find someone with some good managerial skills that has a few tax cases under their belt? IS it really that unreasonable?

Sopor 5:43 PM  

I'm probably going to be WAY out in left field with this one... basically because I know JACK SHIT about the subject matter at hand...

But, could it potentially be a good thing to have someone in this post that is not an expert in tax law? Could that lead to more "I don't care what the tax code says, that's BS!!" decisions?

(I'm NOT ascertaining an opinion, this really is a question because, again, I really don't know what the hell I'm talking about here!)

B Mac 7:26 PM  

running a DOJ division probably requires more than just a good knowledge of managing people, especially when it is a specific division

I absolutely agree. I wasn't clear; having a knowledge of the laws is essential. My point is that there is an argument that the administration would rather have someone with a decent knowledge of tax law and excellent management skills than the other way around.

There is s huge difference between building $200 ipods in China than building cars

Agreed, but my point is that you can teach a guy the subject matter much easier than you can teach someone the fine points of large-scale organizational management.

steves 8:11 PM  

Sopor, you may be right. She practiced in the Chicago area. The optimist in me says that he probably knows her very well and saw something in her that would make her good for the job. The cynic in me says it may just be croneyism. Time will tell.

Matt Tierney 8:58 PM  

Obama's cronyism is better than anything we'd've gotten previously. As much as I've beaten on Geithner, my problem is more about his ideology than competence.

B Mac 9:54 AM  

One downside (of the many, many, many downsides) of the Bush Administration's bumbling is that it may have lowered our expectation of the current President.

"Wow, he speak ENGLISH so darn good!"

"Holy crap, the President didn't embarass our country in front of the rest of the world by calling a foreign leader 'your dudeness'"

"He appointed people who have some experience in the general field in which they will work! Huzzah!!!"

Mr Furious 11:41 AM  

Dammit! Sign in to update the portfolio site, and I leave a trail all over the damn internet...

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