Tom Daschle, who withdrew his nomination to be secretary of health and human services on Tuesday, had faced questions about $140,000 in overlooked tax obligations and other aspects of his life since losing his Senate seat four years ago. He'd stayed in Washington, working at the intersection of business and politics, but never officially lobbying. Now, his record raises questions about President Obama's tough new ethics policies.
The failed nomination did not undermine Obama's promise to upgrade the ethical atmosphere, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs insisted. "Is changing the way Washington works going to be more than a two-week job?" he asked, then answered his own question. "Yes, it is. And, thankfully, we've got four years to try it."
Obama laid out the ethics rules on his second day in office. They make it harder for registered lobbyists to join the administration and for administration officials to become lobbyists afterward.
Since then, the White House has had to grant waivers for two appointees. William Corr, who heads and is registered to lobby for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, has been nominated as deputy secretary of health and human services. And William Lynn, a lobbyist for military contractor Raytheon, is in line to become deputy secretary of defense.
Daschle was considered a "strategic adviser" and was not a registered lobbyist. But Republican Sen. John Ensign of Nevada took a swipe at Daschle, saying, "I don't know how you get paid $2 million by a lobbying firm and not call yourself a lobbyist."
Ensign was half right. Daschle earned $2.1 million at the law and lobbying firm Alston and Bird. That was one part of his income. But the law is on Daschle's side when it comes to not registering as a lobbyist. One key element says a lobbyist is someone who spends at least 20 percent of billable time for a client doing direct lobbying activities, including contacting lawmakers or administration officials.
Thomas Susman, a lobbyist for the American Bar Association, says the line between lobbyists and nonlobbyists is a bright one — even if it's not perfect. Susman adds that Congress doesn't want to shut off the flow of information about the issues it is debating. So, it wrote the law to exempt strategic advisers like Daschle, former Republican Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas and many others.
While some watchdog groups have praised the Obama rules, the head of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington says the administration is cutting out people who know how Washington works. Melanie Sloan, the nonprofit's executive director, says she thinks "the Obama folks are learning that it is one thing to campaign against the Washington insider, and it is another thing to have to govern without those folks."
With Daschle out, the Obama White House has to find a new secretary for health and human services. And it has to figure out if it has got itself into an ethics box of its own design.