Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The smell of ethics violations of the young Obama administration has apparently finally reached such a stench that the latest nominee, former Sen. Majority Leader Tom Daschle, either committed hara kiri or was pushed on his sword. A number of people who may be ethics-challenged have already been or are close to being confirmed thanks to “waiver provisions” that President Barack Obama allowed. But, after the president had passed absolution on Mr. Daschle to serve in his cabinet - a man who by his own admission did not pay $128,000 in federal taxes - the uproar caused Mr. Daschle to withdraw Tuesday as nominee for health and human services secretary. The man whom Mr. Obama said on Monday he would “absolutely” support was toast on Tuesday.

Mr. Daschle proved to be a true limousine liberal; he failed to pay taxes on the limousine he used while earning $5.2 million advising - among other industries - insurers and hospitals (two of the industries he would be overseeing). His failure to pay taxes is all the more galling because as a senator he consistently supported many tax hikes. He probably thought these votes came with a “waiver provision” that he could apply to himself at will. After Mr. Daschle removed his name from nomination, the president said the withdrawal filled him with “sadness and regret.” Why would it if he is serious about upholding ethics in Washington?

Also yesterday, Nancy Killefer withdrew her nomination for the new post of chief performance officer. She had failed to pay employment taxes on her household help for 1 1/2 years. Does anyone in this administration pay the taxes owed?

Recall that, with much fanfare and media applause, President Obama announced stringent ethics guidelines shortly after he took office. And he just as speedily began to let them be violated.

Mr. Obama issued executive orders that prohibit administration officials from lobbying their former colleagues during his presidency and preventing former lobbyists from working for federal agencies they had lobbied in the past two years. These measures are part of Mr. Obama’s campaign pledge to eliminate corruption in Washington and return government to the people. He promised “the most sweeping ethics reform in history.”

Yet how effective is the president in cleansing Washington? Let us ponder how he applies his “new standards:” Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner failed to pay $34,000 in payroll taxes from 2001-2004, but that was deemed insignificant. Why? No one knows. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was confirmed without any guarantees that the large foreign donations her husband receives for his foundation will not engender a conflict of interest with her role as the nation’s top diplomat. This is fine too because - er - Mrs. Clinton said so and promised to be good. Mr. Obama’s nominee for deputy secretary of defense, William J. Lynn III previously lobbied on behalf of Raytheon Co., a major defense contractor, but would supervise military purchases at the Pentagon. That’s acceptable - because, because - he is a consummate professional, said the White House, more or less. Mr. Obama’s selection for deputy secretary of health and human services, William Corr, also previously worked as a lobbyist. This is within the rules, because Mr. Obama wisely instituted a few “waiver provisions.” “Even the toughest rules require reasonable exceptions,” said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. “Our waiver provisions are designed to allow uniquely qualified individuals like Bill Corr and Bill Lynn to serve the public interest in these critical times.” Indeed, this is the kind of “reform” Washington likes best. Ask Mr. Obama’s Agriculture Secretary Tom Villsack, who was formerly a registered lobbyist - and the approximately two dozen registered former lobbyists that have been hired to serve in the executive branch.

Mr. Obama’s “waiver provisions” even were in play for Mr. Daschle until the odor became unbearable. If we read between the lines of Mr. Obama’s ethics rules, there is indeed some rhyme and reason. If one is deemed highly talented, then almost any ill deed can be glossed over: “Tom made a mistake, which he has openly acknowledged. He has not excused it, nor do I. But that mistake, and this decision, cannot diminish the many contributions Tom has made to this country, from his years in the military to his decades of public service,” Mr. Obama said. However, anyone with genuine standards would argue that indeed such a transgression does diminish a citizen’s standing, regardless of past accomplishments.

Needless to say, in the old evil empire of the Bush administration, a nominee who failed to tip a waitress enough would be subject to confirmation rejection. In the bright new Obama administration it is a wonder that Rep. Charles Rangel hasn’t been appointed ethics czar.

Clearly, this is the greatest reform administration in the history of the United States of America - in the history of the world, even - except when it isn’t.

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