Cabinet ethics

And you thought Hillary Clinton was going to be the troublesome Cabinet nominee.

Tom Daschle’s personal resumé of the past few years includes exactly the sort of activity President Barack Obama said he wants to exorcise from the White House.

And Daschle represents only the most glaring incidence of Obama’s failure — in initial choices for key posts — to make good on his pledge to bring “a new era of responsibility to Washington.” Three other Obama nominees also faced serious questions about their taxes or finances.

Two of them, Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, who was nominated to be commerce secretary, and Nancy Killefer, whom Obama chose to be his chief performance officer, withdrew from consideration just as Daschle did Tuesday. The third, Timothy Geitner, was approved for treasury secretary after he paid thousands of dollars in back taxes. Some observers are now calling on Geitner to step down.

To his credit, Obama took responsibility for the Daschle debacle, and vowed to the media that such an appointment wouldn’t occur again. He repeatedly said there should not be two sets of rules — one for average people and one for Washington insiders.

We agree, wholeheartedly.

But it is disturbing that Obama stood solidly behind Daschle, who had been one of the architects of his election victory, until mid-morning Tuesday even though Dashle’s offenses were well-known.

He failed to pay more than $140,000 worth of income taxes until after he was nominated as secretary of health and human services. What’s worse, he didn’t disclose to Obama or his transition team that he had a tax issue until he was well into the nomination process.

Daschle also failed to report more than $80,000 in consulting income he received, much of it from working with the health-care industry, as well as free limo service provided to him by an industry executive. In addition, he moved seamlessly from the U.S. Senate to lucrative contracts with the health-care industry. Until Tuesday, he was prepared to move immediately back into the Washington power structure and regulate the very industry for which he had worked, in direct contradiction of the employment and lobbying standards Obama outlined immediately after his inauguration.

Don’t get us wrong. We’re not suggesting that such ethical lapses are strictly a Democratic malady. There’s plenty of evidence that Republicans are equally afflicted, as the Jack Abramoff scandal of a couple of years ago demonstrated.

But Obama laid down strict rules at the start of his administration for what would be acceptable ethical behavior for his staff. The president did the right thing in accepting Daschle’s decision to withdraw his nomination and in accepting responsibility for the problems with that nomination. But he must now redouble his efforts to impose tough ethical standards on his staff, and to carefully vet the backgrounds of his future nominees or his lofty words will be seen as little more than empty rhetoric.


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