Daschle Is Gone—But the Stench of Insider Corruption Lingers

So now he’s gone, but let’s not forget how it played—how they all rallied around him yesterday: his former colleagues on the Senate Finance Committee (just 15 minutes in private did the trick), the President, and the sympathetic DC-based media. Even ailing Ted Kennedy made some calls. Sure, the New York Times called for him to step aside—but everyone knows what bluenoses those Sulzbergers are. The main thing, according to his many supporters/enablers, is that Tom Daschle was the right guy for the job. Let go of the little things, they told us: everyone makes mistakes.

Daschle will undoubtedly apologize some more, then go quietly back to “work” as an unregistered agent for big money. Yesterday he “deeply apologized” (at least it wasn’t shallow) to the President, to his former colleagues, and to the American people, still insisting that his failure to pay taxes for three years was “completely inadvertent.” Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was predictably soothing: “No one in this administration or in this building is insensitive,” said Gibbs, in respect to how this matter might be perceived.

I have news for Mr. Gibbs: if they kept Daschle on board, as they tried to do, there would be more than some insensitivity involved; they would be effectively flipping us the bird, reneging on their solemn pledge to us to bring a new culture of integrity to the capital.

I mean think about it: the last time I checked, average household income in the U.S. was hovering at around $50,000. Since leaving the Senate Daschle picked up a sweet $5 million in less than four years, and the value of the consultant-related compensation he did not treat as taxable income was $225,000 during that same period.

Daschle said he and his accountant “became aware” last June that he might owe additional taxes. But he didn’t pay up until January 2, when his name was being advanced for a cabinet post. What does that tell you?

What’s more, Obama’s transition team clearly knew there was something shady about Daschle when it learned during early vetting that he and his wife had taken a deduction for a cash gift made to an individual—claiming it on their tax return as a charitable contribution. Obama’s people still pressed ahead with the nomination, apparently telling Daschle that if he would just clean up his tax mess retroactively, they would take care of the window dressing.

Let me ask you again, my fellow wage slaves (whether salaried or freelance): Do we not pay taxes on $225K worth of compensation because our employer doesn’t send us a 1099 form (what Daschle cites as the reason he didn’t pay taxes promptly on the value of the car & driver supplied by media mogul Leo Hindery)? Do we try to deduct the value of cash gifts we make to individuals—claiming these as charitable contributions?

Whatever Tom Daschle may be, he’s not stupid. Same with Timothy Geithner. Let’s just not buy the idea that their tax delinquency amounts to silly mistakes made by busy public servants. What this is about is the arrogance of the overprivileged; it reflects a Washington culture (completely bipartisan) that in its own cosseted way mirrors the Wall Street culture that Washington now rails against (at least temporarily—until the heat dies down).

The great and the good in Washington may not use the Queen’s memorable words, but like the late Queen of Mean—Leona Helmsley—they believe that only the little people pay taxes. They wrap themselves in the self-importance and self-love that come with being part of the permanent governing class. They take their extreme privilege for granted. Daschle said Monday that he just didn’t see that the car and driver he enjoyed might represent taxable income, rather than “a gift from a good friend.” Hello?

And did Obama seriously think that because Daschle wasn’t registered as a lobbyist, he wasn’t effectively lobbying for the private-sector clients that dumped $5 million on him to advance their interests? What is “strategic advice,” after all?

I guess it finally dawned on our new President how badly keeping Daschle at his side would undercut his fine speeches about a new way of doing things in the common interest. The President is telling us that we face lean times ahead—that we need to learn to sacrifice and share. So was there nobody else but Tom Daschle who could run Health and Human Services? C’mon! We’re not that stupid.

It should have been obvious from the start that Daschle is much too close to the powerful health insurance lobby to be entrusted with managing health care reform in a Democratic administration. At least it was obvious to those of us outside of the Beltway, and especially to those of us who actually pay our taxes, in full and on time.

The youngest member of my organization’s staff hails from South Dakota—from a hardscrabble farm family. I asked him yesterday what the folks back home think about the Daschle matter. He said South Dakotans voted Daschle out of office in 2004 because they already had the feeling that he was “getting too big”—that he was rolling in self-importance and had lost contact with the actual lives of High Plains people.

I’m very glad Daschle is gone, but let’s not deceive ourselves into thinking the stables have been cleansed. This episode only highlights the layers of built-up horseshit in a town where influence peddling grew by tenfold to a $3 billion industry over the past 15 years. Even straight-arrow Barack Obama still doesn’t get it; he still says that Daschle “made a mistake,” not that Daschle’s influence peddling was rotten.

I hope that people of faith who can still relate to good old Jeremiah (“Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness: your eyes and heart are only on your dishonest gain…”) will remember that official Washington’s culture—and the casual arrogance that accompanies power and privilege—is incapable of correcting itself. It’s up to us to call it out again and again—and as loudly and even rudely as we can.

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