So Tom Daschle, the erstwhile prairie populist and scourge of multiple Presidential nominees, failed to disclose and pay taxes on hundreds of thousands of dollars of income. He also waited months to pay up and told the Obama transition team about his tax oversights only days before his Senate confirmation hearing to become Secretary of Health and Human Services.
This one is going to be fascinating to watch, less for what it says about Mr. Daschle than what it will reveal about Democratic standards. Every Republican in America knows that if Mr. Daschle were a Reagan or Bush nominee he'd now be headed back to private life faster than you can say John Tower. That's the way Democrats have treated GOP nominees who were accused of far lesser transgressions than Mr. Daschle's tax, er, avoidance. The question is whether Democrats are going to treat Mr. Daschle according to the standard that Mr. Daschle set when he was running the Senate.
And what standard was that? Well, on taxes, you may recall that Mr. Daschle's Senate Democrats led the campaign against "Benedict Arnold corporations" that earn too much income overseas. The companies do this legally, in part to avoid a U.S. corporate tax rate (35%) that is the developed world's second highest, but that hasn't stopped the Daschle Democrats from comparing them to traitors.
Then there was the assault on legal tax shelters, led in the Daschle Senate by Democrat Carl Levin. The Levin hearings encouraged the Justice Department to prosecute employees who sold tax shelters for KPMG, though no tax court had found them illegal. Most of the KPMG charges were later thrown out of court, but not before careers were ruined and life savings spent on legal defense fees. Under political pressure in 2002, the IRS disclosed the names of users of a KPMG shelter, including William Simon Jr., a Republican candidate for California Governor. Democrats cried that Mr. Simon was a tax cheat, and he had to release years of tax returns to show otherwise.
Now we learn that Mr. Daschle failed to report some $255,000 in income from 2005 through 2007 for a car and driver supplied to him for personal use. The chauffeur service was provided by Leo Hindery, a big Democratic donor who also made Mr. Daschle a bundle by making him a limited partner in InterMedia Partners, a private equity shop.
As a legal tax matter, this isn't even a close call. Mr. Daschle says he used the car service about 80% for personal use, and 20% for business. But his spokeswoman says it only dawned on the Senator last June that this might be taxable income. Mr. Daschle's excuse? According to a Journal report Friday, "he told committee staff he had grown used to having a car and driver as majority leader and did not think to report the perk on his taxes, according to staff members." How's that for a Leona Helmsley moment: Doesn't everyone have a car and chauffeur, dear?
The Senate Finance Committee is also reviewing whether certain "travel and entertainment services" provided to Mr. Daschle and his wife Linda, an aviation lobbyist, should also be reported as income. The Washington Post reports that Mr. Daschle has earned more than $5 million over the past two years, including $220,000 from the health-care industry he's been nominated to regulate. Capitalism is wonderful, but at the very least Mr. Daschle's record strips the veneer from President Obama's moralizing that lobbying and special interest pleading are the root of all evil in Washington. In appointing Mr. Daschle, Mr. Obama is showing that lobbying is fine as long as it is done by people who agree with him.
Some Democrats said on the weekend that Mr. Daschle deserves to be confirmed because they "know" he is "honest." But that isn't the standard Mr. Daschle set for GOP appointees who had no ethical taint. In 2001, he established a new, 60-vote confirmation standard for Eugene Scalia to be Labor Department Solicitor, though Mr. Scalia had been approved in committee and would have won on the Senate floor. He also filibustered Miguel Estrada, a judicial nominee of wide renown, on the trivial grounds that the Bush Administration wouldn't release internal memos when Mr. Estrada had worked as a Justice Department staff lawyer.
We'll be watching in particular to see how Democrats Max Baucus and Kent Conrad handle the Daschle tax mess. Finance Chairman Baucus gave a pass to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, albeit for a lesser offense, and Mr. Conrad also voted to confirm Mr. Geithner though not without saying he wouldn't have done so in "normal" times. We assume by "normal" he doesn't mean when nominees are Republican. If nothing else, a vote to confirm Mr. Daschle will expose the insincerity of Democratic tax populism.
If Mr. Daschle were the stand-up guy his fellow Democrats say he is, he'd withdraw his nomination and spare them the embarrassment of confirming someone who thinks the tax laws apply only to other people.