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On Daschle's Fitness For Office

The smart money says that Tom Daschle’s nomination to be Secretary of Health and Human Services will go through, partly because his tax errors seem to have been inadvertent and partly because he’s a former Senate leader still held in high esteem by his old colleagues. The Senate is like a club, in which membership crosses party lines; for transgressions like these, the thinking goes, they’ll approve him. Still, all of that assumes the rules in Washington will remain what they’ve always been. And that may not be the case. Sometimes standards shift, sometimes very quickly. Sometimes, in other words, the smart money is wrong.
A separate question from whether the new information about Daschle will disqualify him is whether it should. And here the issue isn’t simply a failure to pay taxes on time. It’s also the fact that, over the past two years, Daschle made more than $4 million as a lawyer-strategist whose clients included health care industries--and that the income included more than $200,000 in speaking fees to some health care groups. President Obama has prohibited public officials who’ve lobbied in the past two years from serving in his administration, in order to insulate policy-making from the influence of corporate special interests. This prohibition did not apply to Daschle, since he didn’t technically lobby on anybody’s behalf. But did these gigs, separately or collectively, compromise Daschle’s independence anyway? Can Daschle be counted upon to stand up to the special interests in health care?
I'm in no position to judge the tax issue and would like to hear more about his dealings with people like Leo Hindery, the Democratic media mogul who supplied the car service on which Daschle paid back taxes. But when it comes to Daschle and his views on health care, I can shed some light.

On reform, Daschle favors the mainstream Democratic position, which relies primarily on private insurance to deliver coverage--although it also calls for creating a new public plan, into which anybody could enroll. That would put him a bit to my right, insofar as my touting of single-payer as a technically superior--if politically inferior--reform puts me to the mainstream’s left. But Daschle’s philosophy on health care seems, if anything, to be slightly to the left of where I’d expect a politician of his background (ideological, geographical) to be. And it’s exactly where President Obama is, for better or for worse.

What’s more, Daschle is very bullish on scrutinizing new treatments for their cost-effectiveness, an idea that the drug and device industries oppose strongly. He’s also proposed heavy regulation of the insurance industry and been explicit about the public plan, two positions that don’t go over particularly well with most insurers (or many other corporate interest groups, for that matter). Finally, having both heard and read Daschle on many occasions, I believe he is genuinely offended by the way our health care system ruins the lives of countless Americans--and genuinely committed to solving that problem, regardless of which special interests that solution may offend. 

Another question is whether Daschle's lifestyle--as a millionaire with multiple homes and all the perks of the Washington elite--makes him an ideal spokesman, not just for health reform but also for an administration that speaks for the poor and middle class. I think that’s a fair question and, in an ideal world, we'd have fewer lawyer-lobbyist types running Washington. If somebody wants to appoint a working-class single mother to be the face of a major federal agency, dealing with health or any other issue, that'd be fine with me.

On the other hand, the working-class mother probably wouldn’t bring Daschle’s political connections to the task. And it’s those connections--the type that inevitably come with high income and, yes, some baggage--that seem, however unfortunately, necessary for pushing health care reform through the congressional gauntlet. Besides, it's not as if Daschle’s income and lifestyle makes him unique among Obama appointees--nor is it exactly a revelation that this is who he is. If this particular aspect of Daschle's background didn't disqualify him or any other Obama appointee before, I don't see why it should now.
I should mention here that, like a lot of journalist/book authors, I’ve done some paid speeches of my own. Some of these were to groups with business and/or interests in health care, although I’ve never done consulting or advising and decided to give the fees from my lone insurance industry appearance to charity. I actually posted an explanation of my practices some time ago, linked to my biography, encouraging readers to ask questions and draw their own conclusions. (You can read it here.)

It seems to me this is precisely the approach the Senate Finance Committee should take in confirmation hearings. Ask a lot of questions about the precise nature of Daschle's arrangements with special interests, since the possibility for a corrupting relationship exists; pin down his views, past and present, on issues that might intersect these interests; then let people judge, based on those answers and on his record, whether he is trustworthy. I think he is, based on what I know. But others must decide for themselves.

--Jonathan Cohn