Barack Obama’s expected pick of former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle to be secretary of health and human services bumps up against the president-elect’s pledge to rid the White House of special interests.
The former Democratic senator from South Dakota is a special policy adviser for the lobbying law firm Alston & Bird. And in his three years there, the firm has earned more than $16 million representing some of the health care industry’s most powerful interests before the department he’s in line to lead.
Daschle is not himself a lobbyist. But he has advised the firm’s clients on health care issues, according to the firm’s website.
His work as a paid adviser appears to run counter to Obama’s pledge to “free the executive branch from special interest influence.” No political appointee, Obama’s transition team has declared, “will be permitted to work on regulations or contracts directly and substantially related to their prior employer for two years.”
As health and human services secretary, Daschle would oversee myriad regulations, ranging from the drugs that can come to market to Medicare and Medicare reimbursements.
“We can’t figure out any way that he would qualify to be secretary of health and human services under the policy that [Obama] has laid out,” said Taylor Lincoln, editor of Becoming44.org, the blog of government watchdog group Public Citizen.
Daschle’s office referred questions to Obama’s transition aides, who said his “work at Alston & Bird does not present a bar to his service in the transition.”
“We are still in the process of structuring the ethics rules for an Obama administration, but it's clear that those rules would require recusal from any regulation or issue at Alston that he actually worked on,” said transition spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter. “We will meet every commitment made during the campaign,”
And that suggests that Daschle may well have to remove himself from some HHS issues because they were before his law firm.
Alston & Bird traded off of Daschle’s credentials, boasting on the firm’s website that its “significant advantage” comes from employing Daschle and Bob Dole, the former Senate Republican leader, both of whom championed health care causes and sat on the Senate Finance Committee, which oversees some health care reform.
Other than the few details available online, Daschle’s role at the law firm is sketchy. Neither he nor Obama’s transition team has publicly disclosed the extent to which Daschle’s work put him in the middle of health care policy debates. And because Daschle did not work as a lobbyist, his clients are not publicly disclosed.
But it’s clear that his firm did a significant amount of health care work. Lobbying disclosures show that from 2005, when Daschle was hired, to this September, Alston & Bird represented pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, nursing homes, health care providers and a pharmacy benefit manager.
During that period, the company made at least $16 million lobbying HHS and its entities — the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, according to records filed with the Senate.
In fact, the law firm did the majority of its HHS lobbying working to influence the administrators of Medicare and Medicaid, records show.
For instance, the Kidney Care Council, an association of a dozen kidney dialysis providers, paid the firm $520,000 in 2006 to lobby Medicare and Medicaid, among others, on “issues pertaining to the Medicare Modernization Act.” From 2005 to 2008, the council paid the firm a total of almost $1.3 million, according to public records.
Another big spender was Health South. One of the nation’s largest health care providers, the company paid Alston & Bird nearly $1.5 million to lobby HHS and Medicare and Medicaid on its behalf.
The firm also represented the Alliance for Quality Nursing Home Care, the American Orthotic & Prosthetic Association, pharmacy benefit manager CVS Caremark, the Generic Pharmaceutical Association, and the pharmaceutical companies Roche, Bayer Healthcare and Abbott, among others.
Obama’s pick of Daschle is not the first time the president-elect has had to carefully navigate his pledge to bar special interests from the White House. His choice of anti-tobacco lobbyist Bill Corr to help lead his HHS transition team appeared to break an Obama rule that prevents lobbyists from serving in policy areas they have worked to influence within the past year.
The Obama camp defended the choice, saying it did not violate the restrictions.