Tom Daschle's Hillary Problem: If the Senate Majority Leader Runs for President, What Will Voters Think of His Lobbyist Wife?
Mencimer, Stephanie, The Washington Monthly
WHEN MOST PEOPLE GET ENGAGED, they spend a few months talking to caterers, DJs, florists and the like in preparation for the big day. But when Linda Hall got engaged, she had to add another consultation to the prenuptial arrangements: a government ethics lawyer. Hall was about to marry Tom Daschle, who was then a young member of the House of Representatives running for re-election and who wanted his campaign to pay for Hall to accompany him on a South Dakota campaign trip. Normally, such a request wouldn't have been necessary, but Hall, a regional director for the now-defunct Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), was barred as a federal employee from campaign activities by the Hatch Act. With a few caveats, the CAB ethics lawyers signed off on her trip, Daschle won the election, and the pair was married in 1984.
Linda Hall Daschle's prenuptial ethics consultation would be the first of many she has sought over her 17 years as the working wife of a man who is now the most powerful Democrat in Washington. And the ethical questions woven into their marriage have gotten more complex as both Daschles have grown in power and stature in Washington--he as a senator and she as a high-powered lobbyist.
Tom Daschle has demonstrated tremendous leadership skills since taking over as majority leader last spring, in a body where Democrats have a one-vote majority. Immensely popular, his stellar performance has Washington buzzing that Daschle will be a presidential contender in 2004. Daschle's successful maneuvering to block key parts of President Bush's domestic agenda also has Republicans on the attack, challenging Daschle on his home turf in South Dakota with negative advertising. If Daschle does seek higher office, or even if the business of Congress becomes more contentious, those attacks will inescapably become more personal. He may find himself answering some pointed questions about his wife's career and its relationship to his. It won't be pretty.
The landmines in Linda Daschle's professional portfolio will make Hillary Clinton's pork futures and law-firm billings look like mousetraps. For instance, among Linda Daschle's clients is American Airlines, which has had six fatal crashes since 1994 (not even including the World Trade Center flights). The airline has incurred thousands of dollars in federal fines for a host of safety violations, and its employees have been caught in embarrassing drug smuggling stings. Even as its planes have crashed, American has lobbied for years to water down safety and security regulations that might have helped foil the World Trade Center attacks. Yet thanks in part to lobbying efforts by Daschle--and support from her husband--American Airlines got a free pass in the recent airline bailout bill, escaping most legal liability for the hijackings and getting $583 million in cash grants--taxpayer money it will never have to repay.
Mrs. Daschle insists that she has consulted with congressional ethics staff and is in violation of no rules by lobbying on behalf of American and other clients. She voluntarily recuses herself from any business with the Senate, which she strictly does not lobby. And she can point to her record as a former Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) deputy administrator when she says that her clients hire her for her aviation expertise--a field in which she was working long before she married the senator.
But it's not congressional ethics investigators who are most likely to frown on Daschle's lobbying vita. It's the American people, especially the voters of South Dakota. After all, as the wife of the governor of Arkansas, Hillary Clinton sought to minimize any appearance of conflict of interest by refusing a cut of her law firm's earnings from state business. But that didn't save her--or her husband--from eventually getting raked over the coals under allegations that Hillary's career might have benefited from her husband's office. And her biggest offense, it turned out, was representing a failing savings and loan seeking a reprieve from a securities commissioner appointed by her husband--a reprieve it didn't get. …