The Daschle Dilemma

Let’s step up scrutiny of the cabinet picks

Earlier today, former senator Tom Daschle—embroiled in controversy over $128,000 in unpaid taxes—withdrew from consideration for the Secretary of Health and Human Services post, after several days of persistent reporting on the tax issue by news organizations across the country. Calling for Daschle to step down, a Times editorial today dedicated its first six paragraphs to Daschle’s accounting errors, and the last three to the ultimately more important and more questionable issue of Daschle’s financial relationships with various health care organizations. Yet these relationships were the best reason to question Daschle’s nomination, regardless of the tax issue.

In a front page article on Monday, the Times traced Daschle’s tax woes to the unreported use of a car and driver provided to him by a company for which he consulted. These unpaid taxes are the direct cause of Daschle’s withdrawal today.

But the article also outlined the murky relationships that the former South Dakota senator had with health care companies, his not-quite-a-lobbyist status, and the speaking fees that he earned from lending his expertise to United Health Group and the Mayo Clinic. These relationships—and not just the unpaid taxes—were worth questioning, our Trudy Lieberman pointed out yesterday.

As Katrina Vanden Heuvel wrote in the Editor’s Cut blog at The Nation: “After all, while the former Senator’s failure to pay substantial back taxes raised questions about his suitability for the job, it was Daschle’s ties to health care firms—payments of some $300,000 in income from companies that he might have regulated as HHS Secretary—that was most troubling.”

This isn’t to say that Daschle’s checkered tax history is water under the bridge. But in actuality it may have little bearing on how he would perform while in office. It is, however, something that’s easy to explain to readers. Financial ties to the industry one is about to regulate (something George W. Bush was criticized for), while a bit more complicated to explain than tax fraud, are nonetheless much more relevant to the question of Daschle’s fitness for Cabinet office.

On the campaign trail, Obama promised to change Washington and eliminate the influence of lobbyists. His willingness to nominate and stand behind Daschle is further confirmation of the murky policies that the President seems intent on employing—Obama says that members of his administration won’t be able to come back and lobby his government in the areas where they worked, but allowed “lobbyists on his transition team as long as they work on issues unrelated to their earlier jobs,” The Boston Globe reported. (It parallels the Bush administration’s circular logic on torture: “The U.S. doesn’t torture, therefore those things-that-seem-like-torture that we do aren’t torture.”)

Accused during the campaign of being ‘in the tank’ for Barack Obama, the press didn’t shy from pursuing the Daschle investigation. They should be commended for not backing down. But the press’s focus on Daschle’s unpaid taxes—only Fox’s Major Garrett asked about Daschle’s relationships during yesterday’s White House press briefing—deomnstrates their unfortunate tendency to go after the simplest story instead of the best story. Unpaid taxes are a personal—if criminal—matter, and thus don’t directly affect how someone might perform while in office. But relationships with lobbyists do matter, and reflect the nominee’s singed integrity.

As the nomination-and-confirmation process continues, the press must commit to a more thorough public vetting of the nominees, beyond the tax question. The Obama administration certainly doesn’t seem up to the challenge. Neither does the Senate: in hearings last month, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee essentially gave Daschle a free pass to confirmation; reports today indicate that, if he hadn’t withdrawn his name, Daschle would have been confirmed by the Senate.

And, in the course of that vetting, perhaps the press can ask itself some hard questions as well: Why do unpaid taxes disqualify a nominee from office while financial relationships with the industry he’s being asked to reform do not? And if Daschle’s tax troubles had never surfaced—or if he had actually paid his taxes—would the Times editorial board and the rest of the media have remained silent?

After Daschle’s withdrawal, the Times updated the online version of its editorial with this somewhat smug preface:

After this editorial was published, Tom Daschle did the right thing – for himself and more important for the Obama administration – and withdrew his name from nomination as Secretary of Health and Human Services. He may have been propelled to do so by the news that Nancy Killefer, who was appointed by Mr. Obama to the newly created position of White House chief performance officer, had also withdrawn – citing her own tax troubles. The withdrawal of Ms. Killefer had left a lot of people, including us, scratching their heads and wondering what had become of President Obama’s high ethical standards. It should not be hard for the new president to find high-quality appointees to both of these posts. Before he names them, he might have his team do a little more thorough scrubbing of their tax returns. Americans have the right to know that their appointed leaders pay their full share of taxes.

Yes, Americans have the right to know that their appointed leaders pay their full share of taxes. But they also have the right to know the full extent of Cabinet nominees’ connections to lobbyists and entanglements with industry. And they deserve a press corps that knows which is more important.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.