Something interesting happened today. I almost agreed with a New York Times editorial. In it’s lead editorial this morning entitled The Travails of Tom Daschle, the New York Times called for Daschle to withdraw his nomination. I’m a little conflicted on this myself. On one hand, I deplore the big money Daschle pulled in after leaving the Senate and the fact that President Obama nominated him to his cabinet after spendingmonths on the campaign trail excorciating “lobbyists” and their ilk (Washington insiders) and promising a new day in Washington. On the other hand, there’s probably no one better suited to getting a health care plan through Congress than Daschle. It’s the hypocrisy I can’t stand.
And here comes is my strongest critique of President Obama to date: It is appearing that he knowingly lied to the American people in the campaign. Sure, he would say, everyone does it–it’s just politics. But you Mr. Obama promised to be different and it turns out you’re not. You said what you needed to say to get elected and then you turned around and did something else. You can’t have it both ways. Either you realize that lobbyists play a role in the Washington policy making or you deplore that role and keep them out of your administration (as you promised to do). Yet with both Daschle and William Lynn at the Department of Defense, you broke your promise to the American people. So, either it was just campaign talk (you lied to us) or you broke a sincere promise when you realized it was unreasonable that you were going to get anything done as President without any insiders.
This brings us to the reality at hand. Should Lynn and Daschle be confirmed to the posts for which they’ve been nominated? As I don’t know enough of the particulars, although it looks very bad, I won’t pass judgement on Lynn. As for Daschle I deplore the system he bought into the day he left the Senate. Here’s an excerpt from the New York Times editorial:
Mr. Daschle’s financial ties to major players in the health care industry may prove to be even more troublesome as health reform efforts proceed. Like many former power players in Washington, Mr. Daschle cashed in on his political savvy and influence to earn $5 million in recent years, including more than $2 million from Alston & Bird, a law and lobbying firm; more than $2 million from the private equity firm, InterMedia Advisors, which provided the car and driver; and hundreds of thousands of dollars for speeches to interest groups, including those representing health insurance plans, medical equipment distributors and pharmacy boards.
Although Mr. Daschle was not a registered lobbyist, he offered policy advice to the UnitedHealth Group, a huge insurance conglomerate. He was also a trustee of the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, on whose behalf he voiced opposition to a federal loan for a freight rail line near the clinic’s headquarters in Rochester, Minn. The loan was subsequently denied by the Federal Railroad Administration.
I don’t care about Daschle’s not knowing that a car and driver were taxable income. (I frankly care more for what accepting a car and driver says about the character of the simple boy from South Dakota.) But I do care that we know that Tom Daschle will be more than happy to cash in again, when he leaves the post to which he’s been nominated, and will profit off of the decisions he makes while secretary of health and human services. Knowing what he knows and who’s he’s represented in the past, I can’t imagine that it won’t influence his choices as secretary.
I have a friend who could have become a lobbyist by virtue of his Hill experience and made really big bucks. He deplored the idea and instead has worked since for either government or non-profits, earning, I believe, a very healthy salary. But make no mistake, it was millions of dollars less than he could be making–millions! I respect that deeply. Daschle had no such qualms. It is what most ex-members of Congress do and every current member of Congress knows it. Consequently they afford special attention and consideration to the views of their now private sector friends knowing that that will be them some day and for the system to work they must “contribute” while still a member. While most members of Congress would deny it, it has to make a difference. I also want to be clear that some members, like the friend I noted above, eschew such a post-Congress career. Most don’t, however, and they go on to earn the really big bucks as lobbyists or better yet, like Daschle, they “lobby” without lobbying. It’s disgusting. Confirming Daschle would condone the practice.
Yet, there’s probably no one Obama could nominate who would be more capable of pulling off the very tough task of negotiating a new health care regime in America. That’s my quandary. I think I would probably vote “No” on confirming Mr. Daschle, but I’m not sure. As I’m willing to forgive President Obama for backing away on a campaign pledge (because Obama is clearly spectacularly gifted and we, the country, need desperately for him to succeed as president), I might likewise be willing to vote to confirm Mr. Daschle for similar reasons. The country needs to solve its health care mess and Daschle may be the person uniquely qualified to do it.
We need to clean up the system, however. For another perspective on the Daschle the story and what it tells us about the sorry state of “the system”, see the column entitled Taxes? Too Busy, Busy, Busy by Emily Toffe in today’s Washington Post. It’s excellent. As well, see the New York Times story entitled Obama’s Promise Of Ethics Reform Faces Early Test.
The ethical reforms that President Obama has announced with respect to those entering his administration are impressive. I encourage Congress, as well, to toughen their standards. I’d like to see no more Daschles leaving the Senate to earn $5 million per year trading off of their Senate connections. It’s time to close that door and it’s what should be.