Watchdog Chief Weighs In On Confirmation Woes

Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, talks about the confirmation problems that President Barack Obama's Cabinet picks are facing. She says Daschle's withdrawal has caused an "appearance problem" for the administration.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

More now on Tom Daschle's withdrawal and the implications for the Obama administration. Sheila Krumholz is executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a group that keeps an eye on money, politics and influence in Washington. Welcome to the program.

Ms. SHEILA KRUMHOLZ (Executive Director, Center for Responsive Politics): Thank you.

SIEGEL: President Obama ran as a reformer who would change the way Washington does business. Did Tom Daschle's nomination undermine that claim?

Ms. KRUMHOLZ: Well, it certainly caused an appearance problem for the administration, which is not a good thing to have right off the bat. I think more fundamentally it underscores the high standards, but also the difficulty with meeting those high standards for the administration.

SIEGEL: I want to ask you about one standard, which is the is-he-a-lobbyist standard. If Tom Daschle were a registered lobbyist, he would've been presumably barred from a job in the administration. He wasn't, but he was in the lobbying wing of a Washington law firm.

Ms. KRUMHOLZ: Right. And that law firm has significant lobbying contracts. He is not, technically, a registered lobbyist. He is a senior policy advisor, but he can spend up to 20 percent of his time doing exactly the same kind of work that a lobbyist would do.

SIEGEL: Well, could the Obama administration, or could any administration have a rule that would cover what people do, not just whether they're registered to do it?

Ms. KRUMHOLZ: You know, that would be a difficult one to impose and to regulate. I think the strength of the lobbying law is that it is so narrowly defined - covering the most important piece of lobbying, which is contacting Congressmen and covered officials.

SIEGEL: But are there a lot of people in Washington who would pass the litmus test of, say, not being a lobbyist, but who are, you know, big influential players, who are being compensated to a great extent because they are former powers on Capitol Hill or in the executive branch?

Ms. KRUMHOLZ: Absolutely. You often get former members of Congress who are hired specifically because they have those connections. They can call on former members of Congress easily. They're playing tennis or golf with them on the weekends as it is. The distinction here, again, is that it can't be the majority of what they do. They can be like a general directing the troops from the rear, but they themselves are not placing the call. And that's a big distinction.

SIEGEL: At the Department of Defense, Secretary Robert Gates brought in William Lynn as his number two. And Mr. Lynn was lobbying for Raytheon, a big defense contractor. But he was given an exemption. As you view it, is there a proper place for exemptions when you have a policy that says no lobbyists at such levels?

Ms. KRUMHOLZ: I don't think you ever want to say absolutely no exceptions. There might be someone who has such stellar expertise, that you would be doing yourself a disservice, cutting your nose off to spite your face by not allowing that person to serve. The huge disappointment there was the speed with which the Obama administration broke their pledge to slow the revolving door. So, you know, it was just very disappointing that right off of the bat they've waived one of their first nominees.

SIEGEL: You're saying you would've been more impressed if some anxiety had gone into the decision and some time had been taken.

Ms. KRUMHOLZ: Absolutely.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: We've also heard about Nancy Killerfer, who had the tax problem with the D.C. government and with - who was the overseer of budget and spending reform in the Obama administration. Did her tax problem strike you as a disqualifying violation?

Ms. KRUMHOLZ: You know, a $950 lien on her home for unpaid taxes on household help doesn't seem to rise to the level of importance that the $128,000 in back taxes that Tom Daschle owed does. But I think she was cognizant of the disconnect between her serving for OMB as the chief performance officer and having these back taxes owed. I think this is representative of kind of cumulative effect of so many early nominees having ethical problems.

SIEGEL: You don't think the bar is either too high or too low at this point for service in Washington?

Ms. KRUMHOLZ: I think it remains to be seen. Again, they've pledged a change in culture in Washington. That's going to be incredibly difficult for them to achieve.

SIEGEL: The Obama administration.

Ms. KRUMHOLZ: The Obama administration. And I think we're too early in the game here for people to be able to judge for themselves whether this represents a, you know, simple lapse of judgment on the part of a great candidate, or whether, in fact, it's representative of the Obama administration, of Obama himself back-sliding on his pledge.

SIEGEL: Sheila Krumholz, thanks a lot for talking with us.

Ms. KRUMHOLZ: My pleasure.

SIEGEL: Sheila Krumholz is executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics.

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