fb tracking

Obama Administration Teaches Ethics Lesson Via Daschle Withdrawal

K Street

by David Arkush, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division

It’s big news when a president says something like “I screwed up.” And it’s true that mistakes were made, so to speak, regarding some recent nominations. But President Obama still has a groundbreaking ethics policy, and he can still make it work. Sen. Daschle’s nomination shows how.

We at Public Citizen were concerned about Daschle’s nomination right away because we had heard about his work at Alston & Bird, which has a major healthcare lobbying practice.  Even though many people thought Daschle would have done a great job at HHS and as health “czar,” his private-sector work over the past few years didn’t seem to fit with Obama’s promise to change the way Washington works.

Daschle may not have been officially registered as a lobbyist –- but he was being paid millions for, well, something that looked a lot like influencing policy for the benefit of a special interest group, i.e. what the public thinks of as lobbying.

In addition to relying on the legal definition of lobbying, the transition team said that Daschle he would recuse himself from matters that pose conflicts of interest. This wasn’t very satisfactory either -– because we didn’t know anything about Daschle’s potential conflicts. What if they were so numerous or important that they made him a bad candidate for the job? It doesn’t make sense to have a Secretary of HHS who has to recuse himself from significant portions of the agency’s work.

As it turned out, we never learned much about Daschle’s conflicts until a tax problem lit a scandal around his nomination. Then people looked more closely at his record, and what they saw just didn’t match up with Obama’s ethics platform. And poof, the nomination was gone.

Some say the lesson from cases like this is that it’s impossible to build a new administration without hiring people who have earned gobs of money serving corporate special interests. But that view says much more about the customs entrenched in Washington than the pool of candidates. True, many in government or K Street would chafe at this mid-game change of rules because it will alter their career paths or aspirations. But the American people won’t be harmed as a result.

What the Daschle nomination really shows is that we need more public disclosure to give the ethics policy its intended effect. Until his tax controversy arose, Daschle was going to slip through even though his coziness with special interests was not at all what the public had in mind when it voted for Obama.

Fortunately, this means the path to improvement may not be so difficult. Obama should start with two of his other policy strengths: transparency and public participation. Disclosing much more information to the public about nominees’ past activities would provide a chance for real, open debate on whether the candidate is the right fit under the ethics policy. It would reduce the likelihood of embarrassing surprises, diminish public skepticism about whether some nominees deserve waivers and – most important – ensure the public is never asked to take Washington’s word on ethics.  If Obama does that, he should be well on his way to bringing real change.

Cross posted at TheHill.com

Flickr photo by M.V. Jantzen