Weekly Pulse: The Daschle Debacle

Lindsay E. Beyerstein

Losing Tom Daschle is a blow to health care reform, but it's not a lethal wound by any means.

Tom Daschle withdrew his name from consideration for Secretary of
Health and Human Services and Health Czar on Tuesday in the face of
overwhelming public pressure to step aside. Daschle had been plagued by
ethics problems that emerged during his confirmation process: He failed
to report taxable benefits, including a chauffeur and vehicle loaned by
a political ally. Daschle repayed over $100,000 in back taxes and interest last month, but it wasn’t enough.

In the video clip, above, Andrea Mitchell tells CNN that she’d just
gotten off the phone with a "tearful" Daschle who said that he was
withdrawing because he couldn’t pass healthcare if his ethics issues
were too much of a distraction. (Hat tip to Rewire for the dramatic clip.)

Czar 44, where are you? Like many others, Ernest Luning of the Colorado Independent wonders if meaningful healthcare reform is now up in the air. It’s a good question. As Matt Cooper reports for TPMDC,
the Obama administration didn’t really have a plan B. Daschle was
supposed to be the administration’s single point of contact for all
things health care, and the Health Czar job was created just for him.
Now, Ezra Klein asks in The American Prospect, what happens to the Office of Health Policy Reform?

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Jeanne Lambrew, the deputy director of the OHR,
described the thinking yesterday in her speech to the Academy Health
Policy Conference. "Health reform is such an all encompassing and
important priority to the President that he needed someone in the White
House coordinating the effort," she said. The question is whether he
still does. OHR was created for Daschle at Daschle’s request. Obama
wanted Daschle in the White House. Will he want Daschle’s successor in such close proximity? Will he split HHS and OHR?

Losing Daschle is a blow to  reform, but it’s not a lethal wound by
any means. His main qualification for the job was that he knew the
Senate. Given the healthy Democratic majority in the Senate, I’m not
sure that his mojo is as critical as it might have been.

In Mother Jones,
James Ridgeway argues that Daschle was not only doomed for being a
deadbeat tax-payer, but more importantly, for not reporting the
proceeds of his high-flying lifestyle as an undeclared healthcare
industry lobbyist. Daschle literally made millions from cronies in
industries that he would have helped regulate as Health Czar.

John Nichols of the Nation
says good riddance: Daschle wasn’t so progressive in electoral
politics, either, Nichols notes. As a senator, he worked closely with
the Bush administration to orchestrate a bailout of the airlines: His
wife was an airline industry lobbyist. And after 9/11, Daschle thwarted
Russ Feingold’s attempts to put civil liberties amendments in the

Hilzoy of the Washington Monthly
thinks she sees a silver lining to this dark Daschle cloud: Obama was
willing to sacrifice Daschle, a mentor and personal friend whom Obama
had handpicked for two of the most important jobs in his
administration, someone he had every personal and political reason to
want by his side. Maybe Obama really is serious about raising ethical
standards in Washington?

One of Obama’s first acts in office was to sign an executive order
tightening restrictions on lobbyists joining the executive branch.
Daschle was a lobbyist in all but name, he even worked for the lobbying
firm Alston & Bird. Daschle’s back taxes were a big problem, but
Tim Geithner was confirmed as Treasury Secretary despite having owed
tens of thousands of dollars in back taxes. What made Daschle’s
position untenable was the fact that he’d accrued his undeclared income
as a crypto-lobbyist for interests he hoped to regulate. That’s exactly
the revolving door Obama pledged to block.

Passing the stimulus bill will be the first step towards reforming
healthcare. First off, that mammoth bill has to pass before Obama and
the Senate can focus on anything else. Also, the stimulus offers
short-term life support for the programs that many hope will form the
basis for a universal healthcare system-billions of dollars to help
states maintain healthcare services in the face of shrinking revenues.
We can’t expect to expand Medicaid to cover everyone before we help the
states run the programs they’ve already got.

Obama campaigned on promises of sweeping change. The honeymoon is
over and the public is eager to see if he can deliver on ethics and
healthcare reform.

In other healthcare news, Martha Rosenberg of
AlterNet reports on the shady backstory of how Risperdal, a drug meant
for treating rare psychiatric disorders, became the seventh
best-selling medicine in the world. In Mother Jones,
Maia Szalavitz notes with grim satisfaction that the economic downturn
is putting abusive "tough love" and "troubled teen" franchises, such as
the notorious Tranquility Bay program in Jamaica, out of business.

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