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Obama’s choice to head Health and Human Services has more than just tax problems to deal with.

The confirmation of Tom Daschle, Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Health and Human Services has hit a few snags. In the past week, various reports have surfaced detailing Daschle’s initial failure to pay taxes for certain aspects of consulting work he did after he left the Senate in 2004. That consulting was itself very lucrative for Daschle, earning him several million dollars and included work for the kinds of private health insurance interests that many critics believe impedes real reform of our health care system. (For a more detailed catalog of Daschle’s alleged indiscretions, click here).

Since Obama picked Daschle largely for his perceived ability to shepherd health care reform through Congress, this last point is especially disturbing for some. Jonathan Cohn, a writer for The New Republic with expertise on health care, says that Daschle’s connections should not be disqualifying.

Glenn Greenwald offers a much more critical and disturbing take on Daschle and his wife Linda Hall, a high profile lobbyist for some of America’s biggest defense industry contractors and aviation interests. Greenwald acknowledges that we simply do not know whether Daschle will be effective in helping to champion meaningful health care reform.

But, he cautions:

“Other than his being more extreme than most (in his questionable ethics), 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.”

I also don’t know whether Daschle might be effective. What I question, however, is whether there really are no other viable choices out there to lead HHS. When Clinton and Obama were slugging it out in the primaries last year, and health care reform was at or near the top of the list of concerns of Democrats, no one said then that Tom Daschle was uniquely placed to see through such an important reform. One of the consequences of the insider Beltway culture is a tendency for people inside that bubble to convince themselves that only the people they know intimately are capable of doing the job well. Tom Daschle was always viewed as a compromiser and, once he became Senate Democratic leader, a pretty weak one. Compromising in politics is, of course, necessary and therefore by no means always a bad quality. Weak leadership is, on the other hand, harder to rationalize. How that guy, after several years as a lobbyist for powerful private economic interests, has morphed into the single best person to tackle a massive and dramatic social and policy transformation is, frankly, a little beyond me.


The New York Times says Daschle should withdraw his name from consideration.