"I apologize for the errors and profoundly regret that you have had to devote time to them," Daschle, the former Democratic senator from South Dakota, wrote in a letter Sunday to the Senate Finance Committee.
Daschle was scheduled to appear before the Finance Committee Monday as they consider his nomination for secretary. In addition to his tax problems he will face questions about whether he took gifts and trips from charities.
Daschle is now the second Obama nominee to a Cabinet position who has had tax problems -- giving perhaps a new meaning to tax oversight. Then there are the president's new higher standards for lobbying rules that, it appears, are to be applied strictly except when it is very convenient not to, as in the nomination of William Lynn as deputy secretary of defense. Less than two weeks into the new presidency, therefore, questions already are being asked whether Obama's push for higher ethical standards in government is more rhetoric than substance.
Normally, prominent former senators like the widely liked and respected Daschle sail through confirmation hearings. The U.S. Senate has withered as a serious body for putting any check on the Executive Branch in recent decades, particularly in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy and wars. But it still functions well as a club and it always takes care of its own.
Daschle should have been a shoo-in for confirmation and still may get it. But his exposure as someone who held off paying taxes until the last minute comes in the middle of a wave of corruption scandals and conflict-of-interest embarrassments that are flustering what previously had been an exceptionally smooth and successful presidential transition.
Highly respected New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson pulled out of consideration for the post of commerce secretary because of unspecified "conflict of interest" issues. And while Timothy Geithner was confirmed as treasury secretary last week, it was only after revelations that he hadn't paid some back taxes either, even though he had been informed repeatedly of the problem and was well aware of it.
Potentially major and successful Cabinet careers have been destroyed for far less. Zoe Baird was eminently qualified to be President Bill Clinton's attorney general, but she hired an illegal immigrant as her nanny. Similar issues torpedoed the nomination of her would-be successor, and instead the job went to Janet Reno, who was widely accused of being one of the most incompetent and disastrous attorneys general in modern U.S. history.
Among many other bungles and embarrassments, the deaths of cultists in a FBI raid on their enclave in Waco, Texas, occurred on Reno's watch. She also imposed a disastrous ban on sharing of information between the CIA and the FBI that helped make possible the success of the al-Qaida terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, that killed 3,000 Americans. When a succession of well-qualified candidates for high office are excluded, the entire country usually pays the price in the mistakes non-controversial but more mediocre candidates often make when they are confirmed in office.
Richardson and Daschle are about as well qualified in terms of experience, success in their previous posts and widely held professional respect and esteem from their peers as it is possible to get in Washington. But their current woes demonstrate why Obama's call for far higher ethical standards is necessary -- and why it will be so difficult to enforce those standards.
The Republicans swept to power in Congress in 1994 after exposing the genuine corruption, incompetence and fecklessness of the Democrats who had ruled the roost in the House of Representatives for an unprecedented 40 years. But after 12 years in power, the GOP had amassed a record that many critics believed was far worse. However, since the Democrats regained control of both the House and the Senate in 2006, it's been business as usual.
Daschle, Geithner, Lynn and Richardson all have genuinely impressive records. They have earned serious respect in their careers that they deserve. But that should not give them a free ride or the ability to live by double standards. The problems of conflict of interest, double standards and free rides for the powerful and well-connected run deep in Washington and cross all conventional political and ideological lines. The president is right to highlight and tackle a problem that has been complacently ignored on all sides for far too long. But it's still easier said than done.