Daschle Controversy Shows Need for More Disclosure of Nominees’ Lobbying Activities, Potential Conflicts of Interest

Feb. 4, 2009

Daschle Controversy Shows Need for More Disclosure of Nominees’ Lobbying Activities, Potential Conflicts of Interest

Statement of David Arkush, Director, Public Citizen’s Congress Watch Division

Now that Tom Daschle has withdrawn his name from consideration for Health and Human Services secretary, President Obama must find another nominee. We urge the president to learn from what he admits are his mistakes and nominate someone who does not have the kinds of conflicts that Mr. Daschle had.

Mr. Daschle’s career path over the past two years illustrates how business is typically done in Washington. Lawmakers leave office to work for big corporations, where they use their political connections to secure favorable policies for their new employers. They may return later to government, where they may hold posts that require them to regulate former clients or employers.

It’s all too cozy, and it shuts the public out of the process. It must change, and we call on President Obama to fulfill his pledge to change the way business works in Washington. No exceptions.

Mr. Daschle’s situation highlights a key problem: The public lacks the information necessary to evaluate whether nominees fit within the letter and spirit of President Obama’s ethics policy. Public Citizen has sought since Nov. 19 to learn more about the nature of Mr. Daschle’s work on behalf of the health industry at Alston & Bird, for which he received millions of dollars in compensation. Although Daschle’s activities did not meet the narrow legal definition of lobbying, he very likely engaged in what the general public views as lobbying. In that case, the Daschle nomination may well have violated the spirit of Obama’s ethics policy. In any event, it appears to have contradicted the message of change that animated Obama’s groundbreaking campaign.

More information also might have revealed conflicts of interest that should have disqualified Mr. Daschle under Obama’s ethics policy. The policy requires executive branch officials to recuse themselves from matters involving their former employers or clients – and public officials cannot serve effectively if they must recuse themselves from significant portions of their jobs. It is possible that Mr. Daschle had conflicts of interest so substantial or numerous as to make him an inappropriate choice to head the Department of Health and Human Services or serve as a health “czar.”

We applaud President Obama’s renewed commitment to vigorous application of his ethics policy. We urge him to recognize that this means, at a minimum, providing more public disclosure of nominees’ past activities that are relevant to the ethics policy. The public deserves transparency in the application of the new policy – an opportunity to assess and weigh in on whether nominees violate its letter or spirit – not an arrangement in which we must rely heavily on government officials to make the right judgments. The path to better ethics in Washington lies not in public commitments, but in public participation.

Finally, we strongly disagree with the contention of some that it is impossible to build a new administration without hiring people who have earned substantial sums of money serving corporate special interests. In fact, it is entirely possible to avoid hiring a corporate lobbyist or consultant for a top Cabinet job. Many individuals in Washington will chafe at this mid-game change of rules because it will alter their career paths or aspirations. But the American people will not suffer as a result of their disqualification.

We call on President Obama to enforce his groundbreaking ethics policy more rigorously. At a minimum, this means releasing complete information about nominees so that the public can better judge their fitness.