Barack Obama rode into town vowing to usher in a new era of clean government and to change “the ways of Washington.” The cognitive dissonance set in early, of course, when his choice for treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, had to explain how he had neglected to pay $35,000 in self-employment taxes. This week, Obama’s pick for secretary of health and human services, former Sen. Tom Daschle, was forced to withdraw after it emerged that he’d failed to pay taxes for a car and driver provided by an investment firm that Daschle was advising.
Tax problems led to Daschle’s downfall, but I was struck by another aspect of the story. After he left the Senate, Daschle cashed in his public service for a lucrative gig as a Washington fixer, raking in $5 million in four years. His clients included health-care firms with enormous stakes in the reforms that the Obama administration hopes to enact. So what else is new? Hundreds of former lawmakers and other ex-senior officials are registered lobbyists, while thousands more fuel the influence industry as consultants and all-purpose schmoozers. K Street is absolutely brimming with people once responsible for overseeing the very interests that now pay them, and it’s impossible not to wonder how the promise of a future fat paycheck affects the judgments of those in power. During the campaign, Obama repeatedly railed against this pernicious “revolving door,” and he quickly enacted tougher rules aimed at curbing the role of lobbyists in his administration. But he just as quickly made several exceptions, citing the need to get the best people. That sure sounds a lot like the old “ways of Washington.”