With shark-infested capital, change is hard to believe in

The withdrawal of former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle from consideration as secretary of Health and Human Services follows a long tradition of "blood in the water" politics in a city infested with bipartisan sharks. But it isn't the sharks' fault. Politicians keep tossing them food.

It was the late hotel magnate Leona Helmsley who uttered the immortal words, "We don't pay taxes; only the little people pay taxes."

She apparently has been reincarnated in the persons of now Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Daschle. Geithner "forgot" to pay $43,000 in back taxes and penalties, paying the IRS only shortly before his confirmation hearings. Daschle stiffed the IRS for $128,000, paying up just days before his first Senate confirmation hearing. News reports say Daschle waited almost a month after his nomination before telling Barack Obama of his tax tardiness.

Daschle's rationale again exposes what is wrong with Washington. Recall President Obama's vow to "change the culture of Washington." With Geithner and Daschle (and before them, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson's withdrawal of his nomination for commerce secretary under pressure) we are still waiting for "change we can believe in."

As Senate majority leader, one of Daschle's perks was a car and driver paid for by taxpayers. When he lost his 2004 re-election bid, he was given a car and driver by the head of a private equity firm. Naturally, a senator and public servant once squired around shouldn't be expected to drive himself or search for his own parking spot, or worse, take public transportation. After the power and perks of the Senate, it's difficult to come down to where the "little people" live. Perhaps some counseling would have helped.

Daschle supposedly didn't know that a luxury car service is considered income if provided by someone else. How could he not know since for many years he participated in writing - or at least voting on - tax laws that the rest of us must abide by, or face fines and possibly prison. Daschle also made "questionable" charitable contributions. Not reporting income raises red flags with the IRS.

It's not that Daschle couldn't afford the taxes. Since leaving office, documents filed with the Office of Government Ethics (now there's a contradiction), show Daschle earned $2.1 million from a law firm and $1 million a year from the private equity firm. He also made money speaking to and serving on the boards of health care organizations he would regulate as HHS secretary.

Does anyone else see a potential conflict of interest? Daschle can claim he's no different from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose husband heads the Clinton Foundation, which received millions from foreign governments that surely would like to have her (and his) ear when it comes to foreign policy. The new standard appears like the old standard that Obama decried during the campaign.

When you consider other high-level nominees who have withdrawn over much smaller lapses, Daschle's problems are more than a "speed bump." They constitute a large and growing sinkhole for this administration.

Most presidents encounter difficulties with possibly one cabinet nominee or other high-level official, but Obama has had three in less than a month. Daschle could have been confirmed, given the Senate's Democratic majority, but it appears someone showed him the door rather than add to Obama's difficulties in cleaning up Washington.

So far that effort seems to be as problematic as George W. Bush's attempt to set a "new tone" in this shark-infested city.

Leona Helmsley would understand.

© 2009, Tribune Media Services Inc.

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