A few years ago an older friend of mine had been hospitalized, and I had asked him how he was. He replied with a grin that he had been “Cheney-ized,” meaning he had gotten a pacemaker. He says he got a lot of chuckles out of that lame joke made at the vice president’s expense. A few months ago, I discovered that the law of non-profit and tax-exempt organizations had also experienced a different kind of Cheney-ization–that of secrecy. The organizations must be secret because Capitol Hill staffers are acting like they are.
How else do you explain that when these employees speak in public about their jobs–they literally write the law of tax exempt organizations–they also state that everything they have to say is “off the record.” They may be trying to emulate the vice president’s penchant for secrecy, but they are amazingly ineffective at it because all of their public statements are fully reported by the news media. What, then, is the point of their “off the record” claims? As one who has been in or around the news media for about 30 years, I haven’t a clue.
As I do every year, in April I attended the Georgetown University Law Center program on Representing & Managing Tax-Exempt Organizations, and again this year several Hill staffers agreed to speak. I heard Karen McAfee of the House Ways and Means Committee staff say to an audience of more than 400 people, “All my views are my personal views, are not attributable to the Committee, and are off the record.” Roger Colinvaux, who works for the Joint Committee on Taxation, said to the same audience, “I am speaking today on my own behalf.” Then Senate Finance Committee staffer Kristen Bailey told us, “My closing comments are also off the record. My press shop requires me to say that as well.”
The 400 attendees, many of whom traveled cross country and all of whom paid a registration fee, must surely have been disappointed to hear only the personal views of Karen and Roger. At least Kristen’s remarks seemed to be officially connected to her Senate job, and hence valuable to the attendees, but those comments were “off the record.” As for Karen’s and Roger’s comments, we can only hope their personal views about what they do every day bear at least some connection to what their congressional bosses think. Otherwise, they’ve only flattered themselves that we would give a hoot about what they have to say about anything.
And I wonder if Kristen Bailey’s press shop knows that her public statements and those of all her fellow Hill colleagues were widely reported in the tax and charity-related press within hours of their utterance. Surely there must be dire consequences to this “off the record” dictum being so widely ignored. So I asked the man in charge about it. Larry Center is the Assistant Dean for Academic Conferences and Continuing Legal Education at Georgetown University and has heard this “off the record” warning for all of the 23 years he has been organizing such programs.
He said, “The Law Center has no official policy on this issue.” As far as he knows there are no consequences at all, much less dire consequences, if the press ignores “off the record.” But he allowed as how “there seems to be an unwritten rule that it is OK for trade press to report on government employee comments at professional conferences despite the claim they are ‘off the record.’” Might some Hill staff not show up for his programs if they were reminded that all their statements would be on the record? He wasn’t sure, but he guessed that some might not participate under those circumstances.
Clearly, we have an “emperor has no clothes” situation here. Everything is fine and will continue to be so long as nobody points out the obvious. Let me be the naive believer in open government who says out loud to the people who make our laws: “It’s all on the record.”