The Secret Life of Tom Daschle, Moonlighting For The Insurance Industry

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This is how Washington really works: Even a top liberal advocate for taking a strong stand against the insurance industry takes money behind the scenes from the insurance industry.

On Sunday, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who was once a nominee to be President Obama’s Secretary of Health And Human Services, appeared on NBC’s Meet The Press, playing the role of the liberal standard bearer, opposite Oklahoma conservative Sen. Tom Coburn. Daschle spoke out against insurers, praised the so-called “public option,” and at one point framed the debate over health reform to host David Gregory this way:

Well, David, I guess the, the basic question is, are we building this new system for the American people or for the insurance companies?  I mean, that’s really the key question.  How will they be better served?

Sounds like tough-talk from a man who was introduced on the show as “former Senate majority leader Democrat Tom Daschle, an informal adviser to the White House and author of ‘Critical:  What We Can Do About the Health-Care Crisis.’ ” Left unmentioned was the fact that Daschle, in his capacity as a high-paid consultant at the law firm Alston and Bird, is once again working closely with lobbyists for UnitedHealth, the largest U.S. industry player, aiding the company’s effort to convince moderate Senate and House Democrats to, among other things, kill the public option and keep company profits high.

A couple weeks back, BusinessWeek reporters Chad Terhune and Keith Epstein confronted Daschle about his role playing both sides of the health care reform debate. (The entire piece, about how UnitedHealth has already won the health care reform war, is a must read.) Terhune and Epstein write:

[UnitedHealth top lobbyist Judah] Sommer has retained such influential outsiders as Tom Daschle, the former Democratic Senate Leader who now works for the large law and lobbying firm Alston & Bird. Daschle, a liberal from South Dakota, dropped out of the running to be Obama’s Secretary of Health & Human Services after disclosures that he failed to pay taxes on perks given to him by a private client. He advised UnitedHealth in 2007 and 2008 and resumed that role this year. Daschle personally advocates a government-run competitor to private insurers. But he sells his expertise to UnitedHealth, which opposes any such public insurance plan. Among the services Daschle offers are tips on the personalities and policy proclivities of members of Congress he has known for decades.

Conceding that he doesn’t always agree with his client, Daschle says: “They just want a description of the lay of the land, an assessment of circumstances as they appear to be as health reform unfolds.” He says he leaves direct contacts with members of Congress to others at his firm.

Now it is one thing for Daschle to make this convoluted argument–that he can at once advocate the public option while taking money to help those leading the charge to defeat it. It is quite another for Daschle to be allowed on a show like Meet The Press to talk about the insurance industry without any disclosure of the fact that he now works as a strategist for the insurance industry.

A few weeks back, there was quite a hubbub over MSNBC’s decision to allow Richard Wolffe, a former Newsweek reporter turned corporate consultant, to sit in the anchor chair while Keith Olbermann was on vacation. Olbermann later apologized for his producers not disclosing Wolffe’s conflict. Daschle’s Meet The Press appearence Sunday, however, shows the TV news business has a ways to go before such transparency is standardized.

UPDATE: For more on the much less secret life of Howard Dean, drug industry adviser, click here.