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The Daschles: Feeding at the Beltway Trough

When Barack Obama announced in early December that he had selected Tom Daschle to be his Secretary of Health and Human Services as well as his "health care policy czar," Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi -- who had spent several months studying the inner workings of the 2006 Congress in order to profile its limitless corruption -- wrote the following reaction on his blog:

I know several reporters who are either officially or unofficially on "Whore Factor" duty, watching the rapidly kaleidoscoping transition picture and keeping track of the number of known whores and ghouls who for some reason have been invited to befoul the atmosphere of the next administration.

Obviously there has been some dire news on that front already. When Obama picked Tom Daschle to be the HHS Secretary, I nearly shit my pants. In Washington there are whores and there are whores, and then there is Tom Daschle. Tom Daschle would suck off a corpse for a cheeseburger. True, he is probably only the second-biggest whore for the health care industry in American politics — the biggest being doctor/cat-torturer Bill Frist, whose visit to South Dakota on behalf of John Thune in 2004 was one of the factors in ending Daschle's tenure in the Senate.

But in picking Daschle — who as an adviser to the K Street law firm Alston and Bird has spent the last four years burning up the sheets with the nation's fattest insurance and pharmaceutical interests — Obama is essentially announcing that he has no intention of seriously reforming the health care industry. . . .

Regarding Daschle, remember, we're talking about a guy who not only was a consultant for one of the top health-care law firms in the country, but a board member of the Mayo Clinic (a major recipient of NIH grants) and the husband of one of America's biggest defense lobbyists — wife Linda Hall lobbies for Lockheed-Martin and Boeing. Does anyone really think that this person is going to come up with a health care proposal that in any way cuts into the profits of the major health care companies?

How serious Obama is about health care reform remains to be seen.  Obama supporters argue that Obama needs someone like Daschle, with credibility within the health care industry, in order to achieve real reform.  That's the standard explanation for most of what Obama does (he's only courting the establishment in order to change it), and though highly skeptical, I'm personally willing to withhold judgment until the actual evidence is available regarding what Obama actually does.

But there's no need to withhold judgment on Daschle himself.  He embodies everything that is sleazy, sickly, and soul-less about Washington.  It's probably impossible for Obama to fill his cabinet with individuals entirely free of Beltway filth -- it's extremely rare to get anywhere near that system without being infected by it -- but Daschle oozes Beltway slime from every pore.

Before he was elected to Congress 30 years ago from South Dakota, he had very, very few skills outside of the political arena.   He was an Air Force intelligence officer for three years in the early 1970s, then worked for six years as an aide for to South Dakota Sen. James Abourezk, then was elected to the House and then the Senate, where he became Majority Leader.  So he's spent virtually his entire adult left working on Capitol Hill.

Despite that (or rather:  precisely because of it), after being defeated for re-election to the Senate in 2004, he was able almost immediately to begin earning millions of dollars every year from firms and companies that depend on exerting influence in Congress:

The release of the financial statement [Daschle] submitted to the Office of Government Ethics [] details for the first time exactly how, without becoming a registered lobbyist, he made millions of dollars giving public speeches and private counsel to insurers, hospitals, realtors, farmers, energy firms and telecommunications companies with complex regulatory and legislative interests in Washington.

Daschle's expertise and insights, gleaned over 26 years in Congress, earned him more than $5 million over the past two years, including $220,000 from the health-care industry, and perks such as a chauffeured Cadillac, according to the documents.  

Other than his ability to know how to swing doors wide open in Congress, what "expertise and insights" worth that level of compensation does Tom Daschle have?  It's pure legalized influenced peddling, and -- upon being booted out of the Congress -- he ran right to it as quickly as he could and engorged himself at the trough as hungrily as possible.  

In doing so, he followed perfectly in the footsteps of his second wife, Linda, who served as the Clinton administration's Acting Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, and then, once she left her position running the agency that regulates the airlines industry, returned to her extremely lucrative lobbying practice with her largest clients being American Airlines, Northwest Airlines, Boeing, Lockheed and various airports and airport executive associations -- the very companies that she had been regulating.  She began lobbying the Senate on behalf of those clients as soon as Tom left the Senate, where -- needless to say -- he has many "friends" and others who remain loyal to him, and she is continuously successful in defeating measures to impose greater regulations on the airline industry and to obtain other massively beneficial legislation for them

daschles.png In 2002, Washington Monthly editor Stephanie Mencimer wrote a thorough exposé detailing how the couple has spent many years in Washington intertwining their political power and private-sector interests, including their joint role -- he as a Senator and she as FAA administrator -- "to reduce safety inspections of an air-charter company owned by a family friend," one which, in 1993, "crashed in a snowstorm in Minot, North Dakota, killing the pilot and three doctors on their way to a reservation clinic" (after numerous accusations of serious wrongdoing, an Inspector General report cleared her of wrongdoing).  Time and again, companies with a very substantial stake in legislation before the Daschle-run Senate paid huge fees to his wife.  As Mencimer wrote:

So here's a case where a senator's wife gets a high-ranking government job, which in turn boosts her earning power as a lobbyist. She then represents clients who have business with and give money to her husband. Those clients pay her big bucks to help fight safety regulations and to win government money -- money which helps pay the senator's mortgage. Yet so far, the press and congressional ethics hawks have largely given the Daschles a pass. So why isn't this a bigger story?

Mostly because no one in Congress has the slightest interest in raising it. Democrats certainly don't want to attack one of their own, and as they point out in defending the Daschles, Republicans are married to lobbyists, too. In addition, both Republicans and Democrats are beneficiaries of Linda Daschle's clients. "This town is so bizarre that Linda Daschle may even deliver campaign contributions to Trent Lott," says the Heritage Foundation's Ron Utt. Indeed, she freely admits to giving campaign contributions to Republicans.

So who's left to scrutinize the relationship? The answer is the press. But Daschle has them covered too. Unlike Hillary a decade ago, Linda Daschle is a Beltway insider who understands the rules of the game. The main rule is that the effects of your actions, no matter how dubious---say, weakening airline safety---are never grounds for a scandal so long as you first, disclose your actions, and then, don't violate the ethics rules in the process. If Tom or Linda Daschle had secretly taken a free pair of Superbowl tickets from Northwest Airlines and then pushed the airline bailout plan, that would be a big story. But the fact that Tom Daschle takes thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Northwest and his wife's firm collects $200,000 a year to lobby for them is no problem at all.

As Mencimer points out, they know how to stay on the right side of what is strictly legal.  There's no evidence they did anything illegal, but it is still blatantly sleazy and corrupt -- exactly the sort of legalized sleaze and corruption that Barack Obama, as a centerpiece of his campaign, vowed to combat.  And it's unlikely to matter for exactly the reason Mencimer said:  there are very few people in Washington who could criticize this sort of behavior without being guilty of the most extreme hypocrisy imaginable.  The oh-so-sophisticated media stars are far too worldly to care about any such access-buying.  And when one adds on to that the fact that Daschle is a member in good standing of the incestuous Senate club that must confirm him, it is difficult to see anything happening here other than easy confirmation, no matter how many more incriminating details are revealed (and this is to say nothing of the fact that Daschle was Senate Majority Leader from 2001-2004 when the Democrats perfected the art of submission to the Bush agenda, including the 2002 vote for the Iraq War, which Daschle supported).

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.


UPDATE:  I also can't help but contrasting this passage detailing how Tom and Linda ended up married, from The Washington Monthly article . . . :

Yes, it's true: Before Mrs. Daschle was Mrs. Daschle, she was Miss Kansas, 1976.

Petite and blond, with perfect, straight white teeth, Daschle is still strikingly beautiful at 46. But she has a vise-like handshake you wouldn't expect from a beauty queen that suggests the steely interior necessary to survive in Washington power circles. . . .

She met Tom Daschle on a work trip to South Dakota. At the time, Tom Daschle was a freshman congressman, married to the woman who in 1978 had helped him ring 40,000 doorbells and go on to unseat an incumbent by 14 votes. By 1984, Tom had divorced his first wife, with whom he had three children, and married Linda . . .

. . . . with this 2003 clip of Tom Daschle, explaining to Jon Stewart that gay marriage must not be allowed because "a man and a woman have a sacred and a traditional cultural bond within this country. . . it's a statement of fact:  society is embracing the marriage of a man and a woman, and by and large, that's the way it should be . . . DOMA is the statute and I don't think it's unconstitutional":


When they met, Tom was 35 and married, and Linda was 23 and single.  They married once he divorced his first wife.  It's amazing how many politicians love to self-righteously tout what a "sacred and traditional cultural bond" is the male-female martial union even as they parade around with their much-younger latest wife, whom they met while still enmeshed in a "scared and traditional bond" with their first wife.

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Glenn Greenwald

Glenn Greenwald

Glenn Greenwald is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, constitutional lawyer, commentator, author of three New York Times best-selling books on politics and law, and a staff writer and editor at First Look media. His fifth and latest book is, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, about the U.S. surveillance state and his experiences reporting on the Snowden documents around the world. Prior to his collaboration with Pierre Omidyar, Glenn’s column was featured at Guardian US and Salon.  His previous books include: With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the PowerfulGreat American Hypocrites: Toppling the Big Myths of Republican PoliticsA Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency, and How Would a Patriot Act? Defending American Values from a President Run Amok. He is the recipient of the first annual I.F. Stone Award for Independent Journalism, a George Polk Award, and was on The Guardian team that won the Pulitzer Prize for public interest journalism in 2014.

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