Monday, February 2, 2009

There is a Story that is Bigger than Daschle's Unpaid Taxes

So it looks like President Obama's nominee to head the Department of Health and Human Services, Tom Daschle, failed to pay $128,000 in taxes. This revelation has predictably elicited criticism from the right and a reassurance from the Administration and Democrats that Daschle is still the most qualified man for the job...and so the Beltway turns.

As Daschle prepares to appear before the Senate Finance Committee to face "tough" questions about all of this (that will more than likely still lead to his confirmation), I couldn't help but feel that this was really not the biggest story that the media should be focusing on in regard to Daschle. After all, Daschle is the guy that Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi said would "suck off a corpse for a cheeseburger" in reacting to Daschle's nomination in December.

I tend to agree with the New York Times, Glenn Greenwald, Lawrence Lessig, and Matt Stoller that the issue of focus should actually be a much broader topic that has plagued Washington for years, the issue of lobbying and the conflict of interests it creates. Professor Lawrence Lessig asks this question in response to Politico's "Arena" topic:

Why is the "ethical issue" here whether Mr. Daschle('s accountant) understands the (insanely complex) tax code, and not whether it is appropriate for former Members to trade that status for millions?

It seems as though the "revolving door" of lobbyist turned government official turned lobbyist has become so commonly accepted, that this initial question often gets overlooked. One need only look as far as the lobbying that Daschle's firm Alston and Bird did in regard to pushing for immunity for telecom companies during the FISA debate. Daschle then wrote a piece for the Washington Post which praised Obama for supporting the FISA legislation which gave immunity to telecom companies that spied on Americans. Funny how things work isn't it?

The New York Times article also references Daschle's limbo between lobbying and government:

Affiliated with the firm Alston & Bird, Mr. Daschle has operated in the gap between the popular understanding and legal definition of a lobbyist. There is no evidence that he directly sought to influence his former colleagues or other government officials in ways that would have required him to register as a lobbyist or could have run afoul of the restrictions on former lobbyists entering the Obama administration. But the rules still left plenty of room for him to advise businesses seeking to influence the government or to profit otherwise from the fame and insights he acquired in public life.

“Did he attempt to influence? Maybe,” said Thomas Susman, an official at the American Bar Association and author of its lobbying manual. “Did he advise
others in the business of influencing? Probably. But he wasn’t a lobbyist.”

Illegal? Probably not, but enough to make you feel uncomfortable while reading of these accounts. Glenn Greenwald observes:

Other than his being more extreme than most, and the fact that he and his wife work in tandem as a public-private team, there isn't anything particularly unusual about how Tom Daschle functions. He's quite emblematic of the Beltway syndrome. But that's the point: while it's unreasonable to expect that Obama will be able to avoid all ethically questionable individuals, it seems rather unnecessary to take one of the most ethically compromised Beltway mavens and place him in charge of a massive industry, one that has been lavishing him with undeserved wealth for the past several years.

This is the real story in my view, but perhaps the corporate media views a story like Daschle's as the same old song and dance. Everyone knows Washington is what? After all, it would be quite an undertaking to review all the stories that are similar to Daschle's experience and that would cut into stories about the Obama's choice of puppy for his daughters and Sarah Palin's latest travels. Despite all this, I still think that Daschle will be confirmed due to the strong support he is receiving. Stay tuned!

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