Obama Should Learn From the Daschle Fiasco

Washington Matters

Obama Should Learn From the Daschle Fiasco

Tom Daschle was virtually tailor-made for the job of being President Obama's point-man on health care reform -- an early backer who has written a book on how to change the health care system, who understands the legislative process in all its complexities and who still has deep ties with many senators and many off-the-hill players on health care. On top of that, he has Obama's moderate and bipartisan inclinations. (As Senate Democratic leader he worked closely with his GOP counterpart, Trent Lott, to keep the Senate together during the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton, when the Senate was split 50-50 and after the attacks of 9/11.)

It's a shame he had to bow out, but it's probably a good thing.

Let's hope Obama finds a way to turn the loss of Daschle into a positive -- like a full-fledged campaign to shut down the revolving door between government and business that turned a man with 30 years of widely respected public service into a political untouchable.

Obama's promise to change the ways of Washington has already taken some hits. Three nominations have been tainted by tax problems. Daschle's exit followed by just a couple of hours the departure of Nancy Killefer, who Obama had picked to be the first chief performance officer for the federal government, because of past tax troubles. Earlier, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner ran into tax problems.

But Daschle's biggest problem was not his overlooked, unpaid taxes, but the fact that after he left the Senate he traded on his name, influence and experience to pack away $5 million dollars in just five years -- much of it from the health care industry. While Obama was praised for his decision to bar most people from government who had directly lobbied on issues related to their jobs, he has also made exceptions. In and of themselves, none of these problems -- with the possible exception of Daschle's -- are necessarily fatal. A former lobbyist could be one of the most knowledgeable people in the field. But how have we gotten ourselves in a situation where the best people for jobs could have an appearance of a conflict of interest and need to be exempted from a commonsense rule?

That's where Obama should be focusing his attention as a result of all this mess. He was right to try to insulate his White House from special interests and their representatives -- but that closed a small door. It didn't nail shut the revolving one. Obama needs to start pushing for laws that make it far harder for lawmakers and their aides to come to Washington, serve for a while and then go cash the big paychecks from well-heeled corporations. And as long as Congress drags its feet on this, Obama should repeatedly embarrass them by raising the issue -- with names and examples.

It's not just the perception of a conflict of interest -- or even a real conflict of interest -- that causes so much harm. Or even the detachment from reality that makes a donated car and driver seem so routine that someone can think it's not a taxable perk, but a tax-free gift from a wealthy friend. As Daschle's problems illustrate, the revolving door can rob the country of much needed experience, talent and knowledge.