The Daschle Debacle

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As the Senate Finance Committee reviewed Tom Daschle's financial records on Monday, Daschle himself apologized for "the errors that required me to amend my tax returns." But that apology didn't turn out to be enough. On Tuesday, Daschle withdrew his name from consideration as the Obama administration's Health and Human Services nominee.

Throughout all this, however, he offered no apologies for the riches he reaped quite legally by serving the interests of private health care companies.

There are plenty of things in Daschle's financial history that should have alarmed the White House and his former Senate colleagues a lot more than a car and driver he forgot to report to the IRS. (Some of them are well documented by others here at Mother Jones.) But no one seemed much concerned about such matters--a fact that in itself reveals the inherent weaknesses in President Obama's restrictions on former lobbyists serving in government.

Massachusetts Senator John Kerry was one of several leading Democrats who defended Daschle on the Sunday morning news shows. Kerry declared that Daschle's tax issues were an "innocent mistake" that would not affect his ability to perform his job "one iota."

Yes, it's probably true that being driven around in a Cadillac and not paying taxes on it won't compromise Daschle's capabilities or independence as HHS secretary or "health czar." The same cannot be said about all the income that Daschle did report to the IRS. As described by the New York Times:

As a politician, Mr. Daschle often struck a populist note, but his financial disclosure report shows that in the last two years, he received $2.1 million from a law firm, Alston & Bird; $2 million in consulting fees from a private equity firm run by a major Democratic fundraiser, Leo Hindery Jr. (which provided him with the car and driver); and at least $220,000 for speeches to health care, pharmaceutical and insurance companies. He also received nearly $100,000 from health-related companies affected by federal regulation.
Mr. Obama has instituted rules requiring former lobbyists in his administration to pledge not to deal with former clients...As a strategic adviser to companies, Mr. Daschle did not have to register as a lobbyist, and is not technically covered by those rules.
"He's never lobbied, therefore he's not in violation of the pledge," [Press Secretary Robert] Gibbs said. "The president is comfortable with Senator Daschle's variety of experiences and backgrounds. It's why he believes he's best suited to the efforts to reform our health care system."

The Washington Post offered further details on how "exactly how, without becoming a registered lobbyist, he made millions of dollars giving public speeches and private counsel to insurers, hospitals, realtors, farmers, energy firms and telecommunications companies with complex regulatory and legislative interests in Washington":

The Real Problem With the Digital TV Switchover

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On February 17th, the government-mandated switchover from analog to digital television broadcasting is expected to spur a rush on electronics stores, as thousands of clueless Americans suddenly realize that their old TVs will no longer work. Worried that too many people aren't ready for the change, Congressional Democrats tried and failed to delay the switchover another four months. But their fear that Joe Sixpack might miss a few episodes of CSI is misplaced. The bigger concern should be what we'll do with millions of obsolete boob tubes with innards full of toxic heavy metals. Although electronics stores and manufacturers have started take-back programs, the only real way to keep TVs out of landfills and environmentally devastating Chinese scrap yards is to make it illegal to put them there. And unfortunately, only six states (California, Iowa, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Maryland, and Maine) enforce laws governing environmentally-responsible disposal of electronic waste. Long before making the TV switch, Congress should have passed a national electronics recycling law. But I guess they were too busy doing other things. Like watching CSI.

Off Today

OFF TODAY....I'm sick as a dog today, and there's no telling what kind of gibberish I might spout if I tried to blog. So I'm taking the day off. See you tomorrow, I hope.

For my fellow inmates here in The OC, however, I commend to you this story in Sunday's Register. The nice map they ran in the print edition showing that Orange County is now almost entirely blue and purple among young voters isn't online, but the story itself is almost as good.

Joe the Plumber Creates a Crisis of Confidence

Is this what we've come to? Republicans lawmakers listen to conservative experts and Democratic lawmakers listen to liberal experts, and because everyone listens to people who will tell them what they want to hear the idea of expertise is rendered meaningless, thus opening the door for Joe the freaking Plumber to advise the Conservative Working Group in Congress on how to proceed on the stimulus bill.

This isn't a single, random, insanely silly moment. This is a sign that something is deeply wrong with the way we make policy in this country. It shouldn't make you laugh. It should make you cry. (Okay, maybe laugh and cry.)

Gregg Voted to Abolish Commerce. Now He Will Run It

I can't say I understand Obama's appointment of Senator Judd Gregg (R-NH) to his cabinet. The Democratic governor of New Hampshire has said he will appoint a placeholder Republican to finish Gregg's term, meaning that the balance of the Senate does not change. So in exchange for the Democrats NOT getting 60 senators, a conservative now runs the Department of Commerce. Befuddling.

And this makes it even more confusing:

President Obama's new candidate to run the Commerce Department voted in favor of abolishing the agency as a member of the Budget Committee and on the Senate floor in 1995.
Sen. Judd Gregg , R-N.H., whose nomination was expected to be announced Tuesday, also worked in the Senate to trim the department's budget as head of the Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee.... The Senate version of the controversial measure envisioned spending cuts of more than $960 billion, almost half of it from Medicare and Medicaid.

Can someone explain this to me? The Republican replacing Gregg is supposedly more moderate, and Obama gets to tout his bipartisan bona fides. Is that it? Is that worth putting a budget hawk in charge of a federal department?

A Pre-Primer on an Upcoming Defense Budget Fight

You wouldn't have thought that the Obama team is taking a courageous stand by insisting on the same DOD funding as the Bush Administration, but it looks like that is exactly what is going on. Keep the following in mind when conservatives starting talking about Obama being weak on defense. CQ Politics:

The Obama administration has given the Pentagon a $527 billion limit, excluding war costs, for its fiscal 2010 defense budget, an official with the White House's Office of Management and Budget said Monday.
If enacted, that would be an 8 percent increase from the $487.7 billion allocated for fiscal 2009, and it would match what the Bush administration estimated last year for the Pentagon in fiscal 2010. But it sets up a potential conflict between the new administration and the Defense Department's entrenched bureaucracy, which has remained largely intact through the presidential transition.
Some Pentagon officials and congressional conservatives are already trying to portray the OMB number as a cut by comparing it to a $584 billion draft fiscal 2010 budget request compiled last fall by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The $527 billion figure is "what the Bush people thought was the right number last February and that's the number we're going with," said the OMB official, who declined to be identified. "The Joint Chiefs did that to lay down a marker for the incoming administration that was unrealistic. It's more of a wish list than anything else."

I love this little note: "The Pentagon refused to comment publicly on why it would need the higher amount."

Reconciliation

RECONCILIATION....Elana Schor reports that Mitch McConnell is being cagey about whether Senate Republicans will filibuster the stimulus bill. Cue McConnell:

Our goal is to produce a bill that makes a difference; not to kill the measure. So the goal is entirely different from what your question seems to suggest. The goal is to make it better. And we go into this with an open mind. We have two, I think, really good ideas that are entirely in line with what the president I think wants to do.

Actually, I believe him. If Republicans really did put up a united front and filibuster the legislation, the Democratic leadership would just turn around and consider the bill under budget reconciliation rules, which require only a majority vote to pass. Sure, they've already said they'd prefer not to do that, but if they have to they will. And since the bill is all about short-term spending, it would obviously qualify under reconciliation rules.

So all the public handwringing seems like standard DC negotiating kabuki to me, not a genuine effort to kill the bill. If Republicans filibuster, the public will view them as bitter obstructionists and the bill will pass anyway. It's hard to see what's in it for them to go down this road.

POSTSCRIPT: Though if they did lose their minds and filibuster, it would be a great opportunity for Harry Reid to bring back the old filibuster rules and make 'em talk. I know that's just a leftosphere wet dream, but still. It would be great. Hell, how about if we just use this as an excuse to haul out the nuclear option and get rid of the filibuster completely? That would totally rock.

The Groundhog Who Bit Bloomberg Got It Wrong

Writing on this blog, Josh Harkinson has fun at the expense of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose hand was bitten by a Staten Island groundhog:

Maybe biting the hand of a New York billionaire was [the groundhog's] way of saying that spring won't come until someone smacks down the plutocrats on Wall Street. Too bad this isn't Bill Murray's Groundhog Day. If it was, Bloomberg could relive the pain each day until he saves the world.

Actually, Bloomberg, who made his fortune not by swindling anyone but by providing a media service for which there was much demand, has done more to save the world than your average, TARP-sucking plutocrat. From a recent The New York Times story:

Obama's Afghanistan Problem

Secretary of Defense Bob Gates was scheduled to brief President Barack Obama on Afghanistan on Monday afternoon. The pair, according to some media reports, were expected to review Pentagon plans for sending more than 15,000 US troops to Afghanistan. But at Monday's daily press briefing, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said nothing so definitive was on the agenda and that the Obama administration's review of its Afghanistan policy was still under way.

Still, one question is whether Obama's basic approach to Afghanistan—which appears to involve beefing up the troops in the NATO-led force there--has a fatal flaw. Bloomberg reports:

Buy American

BUY AMERICAN....Are we on the brink of a trade war? Or, if not a war, perhaps a trade squabble:

"You're going to see a lot more rhetoric out of leaders against protectionism, but what really matters is their policies," said Simon Johnson, former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund and a professor of economics at MIT....The European Commission is reinstating subsidies on some dairy products to protect its farmers, targeting an area of trade law that remains highly contentious, open to interpretation and potentially damaging to developing countries. Analysts are also bracing for nations to make excessive use of the legal tools now available to them to fight unfair trade, such as filing anti-dumping cases before the WTO.

....In the United States, a move to greatly expand Buy American provisions as part of the $819 billion fiscal stimulus package has generated shock waves in other countries, with Canadian and European officials in particular rising up in protest. The provision, passed by the House on Wednesday, would mostly bar foreign steel and iron from the infrastructure projects laid out in the stimulus package. A Senate version still being considered goes further, requiring, with few exceptions, that all stimulus-funded projects use only American-made equipment and goods.

I have to confess that when I first heard of the Buy American provisions in the trade bill, my first thought was, "Well, what do you expect?" Politically, if you're going to ask American taxpayers to pony up $800 billion to rescue the economy, then of course they're going to want this money spend on American goods and services. And given the behavior of the Republican Party so far, if this provision were removed I think it's safe to say that they'd scream blue murder at election time over every ton of Korean steel that ended up in an American bridge or sewer pipe. Their dedication to free trade, after all, has been pretty cynical over the past eight years.

But still, I guess I was a little too jaded about the whole thing. It may be a political problem, but jettisoning the Buy American language would be the right thing to do. A little bit of restraint on our part could buy us a lot of goodwill down the road and prevent a cascading series of similar measures from other countries. It's worth being a grownup on this issue.