Tom Cries Uncle

Would greater transparency have saved Tom Daschle?

John Dickerson chatted live with readers about this article. Read the transcript.

Barack Obama and Tom Daschle

Tom Daschle’s withdrawal as nominee for health and human services secretary will complicate the Obama administration’s health care strategy. But Daschle’s tax and special-interest problems, and the clumsy way the administration handled them, have already complicated its transparency strategy.

The Obama administration talks a lot about transparency. It’s a key element of the pitch behind the president’s stimulus bill. “Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” said the president last week in a typical remark. “I know that restoring transparency is not only the surest way to achieve results but also to earn back that trust in government without which we cannot deliver the changes the American people sent us here to make.”

Obama and his aides believe that transparency is an end in itself—government should inform the public about its policies and the people carrying them out. But it’s also smart politics. Transparency builds trust in government. And if people trust the government, they’re more likely to buy into the policies it’s promoting.

But when it comes to personnel appointments like Daschle’s, the administration has fallen short of its own standard. Daschle’s and Tim Geithner’s tax troubles were first reported in the press. William J. Lynn and Mark Patterson, exceptions to Obama’s new ethics guidelines regarding lobbyists, were also discovered by the press. Because the administration failed to come forward on its own with this information, it looks as if it’s trying to hide something and creates the distractions that predictably follow.

An administration that promises special interests will have no influence should have realized that the $220,000 Tom Daschle received from health care interests may have affected public impressions about how he could perform his job as a regulator of health care. It was Obama who taught us all to be careful about those conflicts during his two-year campaign. By apparently hoping the news stayed buried until the press discovered it, the Obama team operated in the shadows, not in the sunlight.

Telling us about Daschle’s problems before the press did would not have wiped them away. But if the White House had revealed them first, at least it would have reduced the feeling that it was trying to hide something. In addition to whatever credit they would have gotten for acting in good faith, early disclosure would also have allowed the administration to get the first crack at defining the debate on its own terms.

Instead, it tried the old Washington wiggle. Aides had the information, didn’t release it, and then just tried to manage the fallout. This ensured a new degree of skepticism not only about the Obama team’s vetting process but about its judgment and ability to live up to its ethics and transparency standards. This rolling day-by-day set of stories distracted from the administration’s own message—Hey, look at Tom Daschle when he didn’t have a chauffeur!—and created a pressure that makes it harder to deal with each new problem. This pressure is also what caused Nancy Killefer to resign before she could even take the job as administration performance officer.

The let-it-come-out-in-the-press approach proved fatal to Daschle’s nomination. But it was also a problem with the exceptions to Obama’s ethics policy. Early in his administration, the president announced that he was putting forward the toughest ethics laws in White House history, including the restriction that anyone who had lobbied for a company could not work in an administration post related to that previous lobbying work. Then we started to learn about the loopholes. William J. Lynn III, his choice for the No. 2 official at the Defense Department, recently lobbied for military contractor Raytheon. Mark Patterson, the treasury secretary’s chief of staff, was a lobbyist for Goldman Sachs.

The White House defended the exceptions on the grounds that these people were exceptionally qualified. This is such a reasonable argument that the White House easily could have made it on the front end. If the Obama administration’s transparency practices were consistent, we might have expected to see the names of the exceptions to the ethics policy published on the White House Web site on the day the policy was announced. The “move right along, nothing to see here” defense is more plausible if the information is made available as a matter of course.

Not mentioning the exceptions up front feels sneaky. It raises suspicions that administration aides were trying to grab a few days of good press coverage for the new ethics rules and collect accolades so that when there were exceptions, no one would much care. And anyone who did care could be told that the ethics rules were universally praised by government watchdog experts.

This is, in fact, what happened. But the experts who heralded the measures when they were first announced would probably never have been so complimentary had they known there would be immediate exceptions.

The downside of releasing bad information is that it can create a political problem that overwhelms all reason. Release bad information about a nominee too early, and the story could grow to the point where it becomes impossible to balance a nominee’s career properly against the mistake. Transparency, intended to further the cause of good governance, can unleash a feeding frenzy that can kill a qualified nominee, undermining the cause of good governance. But this is a question of timing. It shouldn’t bias the system toward the least transparent act of transparency. 

Earlier disclosure might not have saved Tom Daschle’s nomination. But late disclosure certainly didn’t. And by the administration’s own transparency standards, sooner is always better. It’s supposed to tell us about the good and the bad equally so that we can make our evaluations about people and policy based on all available information. Transparency about only good news isn’t real transparency. It’s just getting naked in the dark.

Watch White House press secretary Robert Gibbs’ briefing on Daschle: