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Commentary: Daschle's record is too compromised for the job

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There did Tom Daschle get the idea that he didn't have to pay his taxes? The question sets off wild mood swings about the man President Obama has picked to remake the American health-care system -- his apology notwithstanding.

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On one hand, the former senator from South Dakota brims with smarts on reforming health care. On the other, his failure to pay at least $128,000 in back taxes and eagerness to make big money off the people he would regulate speaks of lax ethics and an infuriating sense of entitlement.

Daschle made good on his tax obligations a few days before his hearing to become secretary of health and human services. Problem fixed, he undoubtedly thought. But taxes are only part of it.

In the four years since losing his Senate seat to Republican John Thune, the Democrat has made an easy $5 million letting various businesses use his name and influence. Experts say that his activities fall short of lobbying government (by the technical definition), but not by much. Most distressing is the near quarter-million he's made from health-care companies.

Drawing a sharp line between life in government and life in commerce has never been a Daschle strength. While Tom held a leadership position in the Senate, his wife, Linda, worked as a paid lobbyist for, among other industries, health care.

Such relationships eat into hopes that Daschle will help create the sort of rational health care system he promotes in public. On paper, he correctly frames the mission as more than bringing health coverage to the uninsured. It is also to control costs. That is the hard part because it means interrupting someone's revenue stream.

Daschle has supported including a government plan in any smorgasbord of coverage options, which the insurance industry would fight fang and claw. He talks of creating an independent Federal Health Board empowered to decide what government health programs would cover. And he would deny payment for expensive new drugs and procedures that don't improve currently available treatments. Companies invested in these medications and gizmos would slam any effort to leave them out.

The South Dakotan has backed making single payments for a medical episode (for example, a heart attack or knee replacement). That would reduce the financial incentives for unnecessary care. It would also give doctors and hospitals another reason for doing a good job the first time.

And Daschle continues to criticize the Medicare drug benefit for its awful design. The program is enormously expensive because it cut private insurers into the deal.

That's Daschle talking good health-care policy. But when new legislation gets written, can we trust an author so keen to make money from corporate interests? A strong sense of propriety could contain questionable behavior. But what power does decorum have here? Watch the unblushing ease with which Daschle shrugs off his unpaid taxes and his wife's lobbying work.

While critics on the right bitterly denounce this compromised nominee, most Senate Republicans interviewed over the weekend seemed ready to give Daschle a pass. Who knows when they might want to take a lucrative stroll in the private sector -- and "forget" to pay their taxes -- before returning to government.

And others, so hungry for a national health plan, may not want to further damage the reputation of one who has shown so much promise and whom Obama has chosen to lead. Understandable, but there's too much money at stake to put someone with Daschle's history in charge of health-care reform.

No one expects the Obama administration to be as clean as the candidate vowed. But if Daschle sails through, then the magic of the promise will be close to gone.

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