The phrase “don’t shoot the messenger” comes from the pre-industrial practice of using human messengers to carry communication between major leaders.  These couriers represented the political interests of the leader sending the message, and they usually returned whatever response the recipient wanted to send back to their liege.  If the recipient didn’t like that message, however, it was not uncommon for him or her to shoot (or stab, or flay, or behead, or whatever other killing of choice seemed appropriate) the messenger and send the dead body back to the original sender as a response.

Needless to say, messengers in ancient days didn’t have a long life expectancy.

And neither does Jeffrey Zeints after his recent performance before the House Budget Committee.

Zeints, the Acting Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, was brought before the committee and questioned about the recently proposed budget for the coming fiscal year.  Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) and the other members of the committee took Zeints to task over the budget, which they argued does virtually nothing to fix America’s spending problem or bring down the national debt.

And in response to this significant task, Zeints was their messenger.  Zeints only took over as of OMB Director after Jacob Lew left last month to become the newest White House Chief of Staff, so at first glance it would appear that the White House sent in a novice to do a professional’s job.  But before taking over OMB, he served inside OMB since 2009 as the first Chief Performance Officer of the United States.  (Not familiar with the “Chief Performance Officer” role?  It’s okay, I wasn’t either. Here’s some brief research via Wikipedia.)  It appears that this job was supposed to be a glorified cost-cutter and efficiency promoter within the OMB, which should theoretically mean that Zeints had some working knowledge of how the government was trying to cut its spending – or at least how it was trying to spin its policies as spending cuts.

The messenger went in.  But the Budget Committee didn’t shoot the messenger.  They allowed the messenger to shoot himself.

A trio of significant video clips from the event have popped up on the House Budget Committee’s YouTube channel.  The first of these clips shows Congressman Ryan piecing apart the White House’s transparent budgeting gimmicks that they use to make the claim that they are reducing the deficit by $4 trillion over ten years.  It becomes painfully clear during these exchanges that Zeints was not fully equipped to adequately respond, as he spends much of his time trying to backtrack and justify why certain items should be counted retroactively as deficit reduction measures instead of actively promoting real deficit reductions from the budget (a relatively small figure at $0.41 trillion over ten years, if Ryan’s calculations are correct).

The second video clip reinforces the first, with Representative Scott Garret (R-NJ) failing to get a straight answer from Zeintz when he asks in what year the President’s budget would balance.  Zeintz tries unsuccessfully to claim that the budget would make “significant progress across this decade” and even goes so far as to try to claim that the issue of a balanced budget is “not a year question.”

It’s in the third clip, which immediately precedes the events in the second, where Zeintz really shoots himself in the foot.  But the bullet traveled at a most unusual trajectory, flying out the front doors of Congress, down the sidewalk, across 1st Street and up the steps of the Supreme Court building, embedding itself in the amicus brief filed by the Obama Administration in defense of the Affordable Care Act.

One of the most significant arguments that will be heard before the Supreme Court in defense of the ACA’s constitutionality is the argument that the fine levied against those persons who fail to buy an insurance policy under the individual mandate is actually a tax.  This approach isn’t perfect, but it is arguably the best defense of Obamacare that the administration has going thus far.

Or at least, it was until this exchange took place.  Congressman Garret ask Zeints to confirm if there are no tax increases for families making under $250,000 a year. (Transcript courtesy of The Weekly Standard).

Rep. Garrett: “So if I am part of a family that does not buy health insurance in violation of the President’s health care program and I got to pay because of that, that is not a tax incre – that is not a tax on me?”

Zeints: “The Affordable Care Act saves money.”

Rep. Garrett: “I understand that, but is that a tax on me then if I do not pay that, or is that not a tax?”

Zeints: “I’m not sure I’m following the question.”

Rep. Garrett: “You said there’s no tax increases on people who make under $250,000. If I make under $250,000 and I do not buy health insurance as I’m required to under the Affordable Healthcare Act , is that a tax on me or is that not a tax on me?”

Zeints: Well this is –”

Rep. Garrett: A moment ago you said there’s no tax increase.”

Zeints: “There aren’t.”

Rep. Garrett:“So that’s not a tax?”

Zeints: “No.”

Rep. Garrett: “That’s not a tax. Okay. I just want to be clear on that because that’s not the argument the administration is making. Let’s move on — before the Supreme Court.”

(As an aside, I will note that it is almost laughable how Zeints’s first automatic response at the mention of the Affordable Care Act is that the bill saves money.  Almost.)

This exchange highlights the catch-22 the administration created for itself with the “it’s really a tax” argument.  If the fine isn’t a tax, then the administration’s best legal defense of the ACA in court flies out the window.  But if it IS a tax, then the administration has broken its political promise to not raise taxes on families that make $250,000 a year or less.

Zeints limited position in the OMB was ultimately his downfall.  Because his administrative niche fell strictly into the financial realm, he was sent in to the hearing to deal specifically with the politics of the budget – not with other aspects of the President’s agenda.  So when Rep. Garret brilliantly tied the budget’s implications into that larger agenda, Zeints continued to defend the President’s budgetary promises as he was expected to do.  But in doing so, he outed the “it’s really a tax” argument for the political spin game that it actually is.

Credit is due to Rep. Garret for his questioning.  While it’s true that the President has himself been caught saying it’s not a tax before later claiming that it is a tax, reminding everyone of that fact when the Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments about the individual mandate next month could not be more valuable.

The White House sent Zeints in to the hearing expecting to jockey with Congress over budgetary politics, and maybe hoped to build up some ammunition for their argument that those pesky Republicans were refusing to compromise with him.  But they likely didn’t expect to lose so brilliantly – nor did they expect to risk losing ground in the upcoming Supreme Court battle over healthcare.

Forget about shooting the messenger here.  The President’s messenger really did shoot himself first.

David Giffin :: Emory University :: Atlanta, Georgia :: @D_Giffin