RENEE MONTAGNE: Tom Daschle was set to be one of the most prominent figures in President Obama's Cabinet, until yesterday when he withdrew his name from consideration to be secretary of Health and Human Services. He faced increasingly intense questions about $146,000 in overlooked tax obligations and about his work in private business, all of which took place after he lost his Senate seat four years ago. Tom Daschle stayed in Washington, working at the intersection of business and politics, never officially lobbying. Now his record raises questions about President Obama's tough new ethics policies. NPR's Peter Overby reports.
PETER OVERBY: Robert Gibbs had his hands full yesterday. The White House press secretary was due to begin his daily briefing less than an hour after Daschle withdrew. Gibbs insisted that the failed nomination did not undermine President Obama's promise to upgrade the capital city's ethical atmosphere.
MONTAGNE: Is changing the way Washington works going to be more than a two-week job? Yes, it is. And thankfully, we've got four years to try.
OVERBY: And there's Daschle, who's a, quote, strategic advisor, but has never registered as a lobbyist. Republican Senator John Ensign of Nevada took a swipe at Daschle and the president.
S: President Obama has said that he wants to stop the revolving door, that he doesn't want lobbyists as part of this administration. Well, I don't know how you get paid $2 million by a lobbying firm and not call yourself a lobbyist.
OVERBY: Ensign was half right. Daschle earned $2.1 million at the law and lobbying firm Alston and Bird. That was one part of his income. But Ensign's complaint that Daschle should be a registered lobbyist is just wrong. The law is on Daschle's side. There's a threshold for registering as a lobbyist. One key element: You have to spend at least 20 percent of billable time for a client doing direct lobbying activities, including contacting lawmakers or administration officials for the client. Tom Susman, a lobbyist for the American Bar Association, is an expert on the law of lobbying. He says the line between lobbyists and nonlobbyists is a bright one, even if it's not perfect.
MONTAGNE: Drawing these lines is going to be imprecise because there is a First Amendment right to be protected.
OVERBY: That's the right to petition the government, and Susman says Congress doesn't want to shut off the flow of information about issues it's debating. So Congress wrote the law not to cover strategic advisors like Daschle or former Senator Bob Dole or many others. Washington has a rich history of nonlobbyists. One master of the field was Clark Clifford, an advisor to President Harry S. Truman, who went on to provide clients with advice and to offer help, but as Susman points out, never to lobby.
MONTAGNE: The opponents to such a narrow rule would say wait a second, when Clark Clifford made his phone call to a committee chairman or an agency head for $25,000, and all it took was one phone call, that ought to be publicly disclosed. And maybe it ought to be, but the law doesn't require it.
OVERBY: Some watchdog groups have praised the Obama rules, but not all. Melanie Sloan is director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. She says the administration is cutting out people who know how Washington works.
MONTAGNE: I think the Obama folks are learning that it's one thing to campaign against a Washington insider, and it is entirely another to have to govern without those folks.
OVERBY: Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
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