Been wondering what Tom Daschle’s been doing since he bowed out of a nomination to President Obama’s cabinet because of a peculiar Washington disease — not paying taxes?
According to The New York Times, former Sen. Daschle has been spending quality time in the White House holding forth on health-care reform. Reports The Times: “He still speaks frequently to the president, who met with him as recently as Friday morning in the Oval Office. And he remains a highly paid policy adviser to hospital, drug, pharmaceutical and other health care industry clients of Alston & Bird, the law and lobbying firm.”
He says he’s not a lobbyist. He says he’s a “resource” for his clients and former legislative colleagues. “I do not tailor my views to any specific group or client.”
How believable — or unbelievable — is that claim?
The 900-lawyer firm he works for has received more than $5 million in lobbying fees so far this year, much of it from companies and associations with an abiding interest in influencing the outcome of health-care reform efforts. From 2005 (when the firm’s lobbying revenues nearly tripled) to 2008, the firm’s lobbying fees totaled $24.2 million, according to the lobbying database of the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics.
Mr. Daschle joined the K Street firm after losing his Senate re-election bid in 2004 to Sen. John Thune. Mr. Daschle is an expert in health-care matters; Alston & Bird has numerous clients interested in health-care reform; and the firm’s annual lobbying fees skyrocketed. Surprise!
The Washington Post pegged Mr. Daschle’s salary at $2 million. He also received $2 million last year from business partner Leo Hindery, whose gift of a car and driver led to Mr. Daschle’s withdrawal from cabinet consideration.
“We know that many power brokers never register as lobbyists, but they are every bit as powerful,” said Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation watchdog group.
Over his congressional career, Mr. Daschle has enjoyed considerable financial support from the health-care industries. Since 1998, he has received $1,517,020 in campaign contributions from PACs and individuals associated with the health-care fields.
After amending his tax returns for 2005 through 2007 for failing to disclose income (the car and driver) from Mr. Hindery, he paid $101,943 in back taxes plus interest. Then he withdrew from consideration for secretary of Health and Human Services. In this post, he would have served as point man for the president’s health-care reform plans.
But, reports The Times, he appears to have sufficient access to the president’s ear to be an effective advocate on health care. But for whose benefit?
White House officials say they appreciate his help. “He is one of a number of people that provides outside advice to the White House, and the president greatly appreciates that advice and Tom’s friendship,” said Dan Pfeiffer, a spokesman for the White House who previously worked for Mr. Daschle. Mr. Pfeiffer added that the former senator was “a recognized expert on health reform who knows more about the legislative process than just about anyone.”
Critics, though, say his ex officio role gives Alston & Bird’s health care clients privileged insights into the policy process. They say Mr. Daschle’s multiple advisory roles illustrate the kind of coziness with the lobbying world that Mr. Obama vowed to end. If he had been confirmed as health secretary, Mr. Daschle would have been subject to strict transparency and ethics rules. [emphasis added]
Mr. Daschle has not registered as a lobbyist. Nor does he have an enviable track record of disclosing the health-care clients in his portfolio when addressing public-policy issues — as he failed to do on Aug. 16 on NBC’s Meet the Press. He told host David Gregory this:
Well, David, I guess the, the basic question is, are we building this new system for the American people or for the insurance companies? I mean, that’s really the key question. How will they be better served?
Left unmentioned was the fact that Daschle, in his capacity as a high-paid consultant at the law firm Alston and Bird, is once again working closely with lobbyists for UnitedHealth, the largest U.S. industry player, aiding the company’s effort to convince moderate Senate and House Democrats to, among other things, kill the public option and keep company profits high.
(BusinessWeek’s Chad Terhune and Keith Epstein think the insurers have already won.)
Here’s how his employer describes Mr. Daschle’s role:
Senator Tom Daschle is a Special Public Policy Advisor in Alston & Bird’s Washington, D.C., office, and is a member of the Legislative & Public Policy Group. As a non-attorney, Senator Daschle focuses his services on advising the firm’s clients on issues related to all aspects of public policy with a particular emphasis on issues related to financial services, health care, energy, telecommunications and taxes. In addition, he advises on trade and international matters. He spends a substantial amount of time providing strategic and policy advice to clients in renewable energy.
Mr. Daschle could not formally lobby for a year after leaving the Senate because of ethics rules. Five years later, he has not registered as a lobbyist. Yet he maintains a portfolio of health-care industry clients, gives paid speeches to health-care industry groups, and has, apparently, unlimited access to the White House and its decision makers — including President Obama.
If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck. Mr. Daschle should register as a lobbyist.