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.
So far, while the press has reported on Linda Daschle’s lobbying efforts, it hasn’t elevated it to anything like a bona fide scandal. Nor has the GOP, despite its recent attacks on her husband. But that could change. It doesn’t take Lee Atwater to see how Mrs. Daschle’s professional life might play out in a nasty re-election or presidential campaign: “Sen. Daschle’s wife: Lobbyist for Nation’s Most Dangerous Airline,” or “Majority leader’s wife lobbied to make airlines less safe.” Already the emails are circulating. Just after a USA Today story on the FAA’s failure to address the problem of violent passengers on airlines, one proclaimed: “Linda Daschle’s FAA failed to heed pre 9-11 warnings.” The chat rooms of the popular conservative rant site, Free Republic, are filled with complaints about Linda Daschle’s business dealings, a sign that conservatives are paying attention.
But Daschle seems genuinely shocked to hear that her career could become a political liability for her husband. “What is it about Linda Daschle’s actions that have any bearing on Tom Daschle’s public service? I just don’t see the connection,” she says. “I think a congressional spouse is entitled to a career, self-fulfillment. I love what I do. I love aviation. I love aviation policy. I don’t see myself walking away from a career that I’ve invested nearly 25 years in.” Instead, she hopes that, as more and more congressional spouses take up lobbying careers, eventually the media will stop asking these pesky conflict-of-interest questions.
But reporters are no more likely to stop asking questions about Linda Daschle’s airline lobbying than they were going to ignore Billy Carter when he signed on as a lobbyist for Libya. David Schaffer, counsel to the House aviation subcommittee and a long-time acquaintance of Linda Daschle’s, suggests that she may suffer from a common blind spot among Washington denizens. “People on the Hill don’t really see lobbyists as evil,” he explains. “But the public doesn’t see it that way.”
Yes, it’s true: Before Mrs. Daschle was Mrs. Daschle, she was Miss Kansas, 1976. “It was a tremendous opportunity for me at a very young age,” she says, cupping a mug of coffee in her distinctly unmanicured hands. “In a small way, it helped prepare me for being married to a very public figure.”
Petite and blond, with perfect, straight white teeth, Daschle is still strikingly beautiful at 46. But she has a vise-like handshake you wouldn’t expect from a beauty queen that suggests the steely interior necessary to survive in Washington power circles. Her office is filled with mementos reflecting her dual status as congressional wife and long-time aviation industry member: On the floor are models of airplanes, while in one corner stands a Lakota Sioux ghost dancer costume from South Dakota. Photos show her hunting pheasants with George McGovern and dressed in full flight gear with a team of Marine pilots. And in case her clients forget who she’s married to, behind her desk is a giant framed print of the U.S. Senate insigne.
Born in Oklahoma and raised in Kansas, Daschle got into aviation early, working as a weather watcher at an FAA flight service station while in college. She spent two years at a community college, then went to Kansas State University, where she studied mass communication but never graduated. (“I loved my senior year,” she says by way of explanation.) After college, she wanted to be an air traffic controller, but ended up going to work for a small regional airline—until she had eight paychecks bounce, her first introduction to the fragile economics of the aviation industry.
After a stint as marketing director for another regional airline, in 1980 Daschle went to work for the Civil Aeronautics Board, the government entity charged with regulating the airline industry. There, she served as the director of the office of congressional, community and consumer affairs. She met Tom Daschle on a work trip to South Dakota. At the time, Tom Daschle was a freshman congressman, married to the woman who in 1978 had helped him ring 40,000 doorbells and go on to unseat an incumbent by 14 votes. By 1984, Tom had divorced his first wife, with whom he had three children, and married Linda, who was prohibited by law from ringing any doorbells.
Soon after they were married, Linda went to work for the Air Transport Association, the airline industry’s main trade group. The first thing she did after marrying Tom was to consult the House ethics committee about how to manage potential conflicts. Lawyers advised her to fully disclose her activities and not to lobby her spouse, his office or committees. So that’s what she’s done. She takes all media calls, responding to every last question about her possible conflicts. And she’s never considered a career change. “I never ever thought I’d have to give up anything to be married to Tom Daschle. I was here, I already had this career and I had no plans of backing out of it,” she explains. “That’s not to say that I didn’t need to think about the appearance and work to avoid conflicts of interest.”
Friends and colleagues say Daschle is very sensitive to the media scrutiny—and has no sense of humor about it—going so far as to get up and leave meetings where the business discussed might involve the Senate. “I have tried in every possible way to make it very clear that I do not lobby my husband and I do not lobby the Senate. I don’t want people to knock on my door here wanting my help thinking they’re getting Tom Daschle as part of the deal,” she says. “My clients are people I’ve known for years and we have cultivated our own relationships that are very independent of Tom Daschle.”
Until the 1970s, when feminists began to crack open the old boys’ clubs, most congressional wives had a pretty pat role: travel with the campaign, make the husband look like a nice guy, and take care of the kids. As Ellen Proxmire, wife of Sen. William Proxmire, explained in this magazine 20 years ago, playing wife to a politician can be brutal. In the early years of her husband’s campaign, she used to “sit home Saturday nights and cry.” In 1958, her husband left for a convention shortly after their day-old son died. Two days later, Ellen, too, went back on the campaign trail.
Carolyn Condit’s recent travails illustrate the other pitfalls of the traditional political marriage. Its enormous power imbalance has undoubtedly contributed to many of the “behavioral issues” displayed by many congressmen over the years. Think of the first Mrs. Dole, who nursed her war-wounded husband, even attending college classes to take notes for him when he could not write, only to get dumped after 23 years of marriage in an “emergency divorce.” Or the first Mrs. Gingrich, whose husband served her divorce papers at the hospital while she was being treated for cancer.
Today, there are a lot more Linda Daschles than Carolyn Condits in the congressional wives’ club, and women are certainly better for it. (Can anyone imagine the current Mrs. Dole getting dumped in an emergency divorce?!) But as congressional wives have moved out of traditional roles, inevitably their careers have gotten entangled with Washington’s influence-peddling business. In the early days of the feminist movement, working congressional wives usually stuck to teaching or real estate. But it wasn’t long before some savvy ones saw the possibilities in their connections—as did many of their husband’s political suitors. Ellen Proxmire, for one, got sick of crying and, with a dozen or so other congressional wives, created Washington Whirl-Around, a tour and convention service. Whirl-Around did booming business, signing up clients—lobbyists mostly—who had business on the Hill, and holding receptions in Senate hearing rooms, courtesy of Sen. William Proxmire, who signed off on the room rentals.
Congressional wives didn’t have to look too hard for business opportunities, though. Washington’s special interests usually came to them. Back in 1979, Marion Javits caused a ruckus when she began doing PR work for Iran Air at the same time that her husband, New York Republican Jacob Javits, was on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The PR contract turned out to be a cover; Javits was actually doing work for the Shah himself. More recently, shortly after her husband became speaker of the House, (and before she, too, got dumped for a power wife) the second Mrs. Gingrich was hired as vice president for business development by an Israeli firm which had lobbied her husband to support an Israeli free-trade zone. Marianne Gingrich’s previous job had been selling cosmetics from her home.
You don’t hear much about these spousal contretemps anymore, but not because they’ve disappeared. Rather, such symbiotic relationships have simply become institutionalized. No longer peddling cosmetics, many congressional wives are now full-fledged members of D.C.’s access business—and often were so long before becoming congressional wives. There’s Enron board member Wendy Gramm, whose husband, Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, pushed through legislation in 2000 that exempted Enron from rules that govern other commodity traders. Airline lobbyist and former Reagan administration official Rebecca Cox is the wife of California Republican Rep. Christopher Cox. Jean Kurth Oberstar, wife of Minnesota Rep. James Oberstar, the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee, owns an airport-consulting firm which contracts with airports for which her husband helped secure federal grants.
Unlike the days when former House Speaker Jim Wright’s wife got a do-nothing job from a Texas investor seeking favors from her husband, it’s much harder today to prove that congressional wives’ business portfolios are solely the product of their husbands’ connections. As the Daschle marriage illustrates, that doesn’t mean that the potential conflicts are any less serious.
In 1993, Linda Daschle took a break from her lobbying career (she was by then senior vice president of the American Association of Airport Executives), when Bill Clinton appointed her to be deputy administrator of the FAA. The job required Senate confirmation, and Daschle’s husband joined his colleagues in voting for her unanimously. The appointment naturally stirred rumors at the FAA that she had been chosen because of who her husband was. That year, Clinton had also nominated three other congressional wives for top government jobs, in a move widely viewed as a shrewdly ingratiating gesture from a president who’d never served in Washington. But Daschle says that not only did she take a pay cut to take the FAA job, she did not seek the position. The Clinton administration asked several times before she finally agreed to take the post. “If Tom Daschle could have helped me get a job, how come I’m not ambassador to France?” she says.
In Daschle’s defense, one industry source, who wishes to remain anonymous, says that Linda was far more qualified for the job than many of her predecessors, noting that during the first Bush administration, the deputy FAA administrator had been the Bush family’s private campaign pilot. By contrast, Daschle actually had some experience in government. Former Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater (now also a lobbyist) says that during her four-year tenure at FAA, Daschle was a “true professional” who “clearly brought a unique insight to the job, especially when at the end of the day, you have to get the resources from Congress. Having those relationships and contacts is helpful.”
Those contacts, though, also landed Daschle in the middle of an inspector general’s investigation over charges that her husband had inappropriately intervened to reduce safety inspections of an air-charter company owned by a family friend. In 1994, a plane chartered by the Indian Health Service crashed in a snowstorm in Minot, North Dakota, killing the pilot and three doctors on their way to a reservation clinic. The charter company was owned by Murl Bellew, a friend of the Daschles who had taught the senator how to fly.
For several years, Forest Service inspectors had been raising serious questions about the safety of Bellew’s operation—issues that the FAA had overlooked—and had argued that the company should be disqualified from seeking government contracts. Bellew wanted to get rid of the Forest Service inspections, and Sen. Daschle obliged by pushing legislation to eliminate the Forest Service’s inspection role altogether, leaving his wife’s agency as the sole overseer. He argued at the time that the legislation would streamline the bureaucracy by eliminating duplicative services.
In part of the ensuing investigation by the DOT inspector general, senior FAA officials claimed that Linda Daschle had also worked to quash a proposed program to train Forest Service inspectors to conduct FAA inspections. Then, an FAA inspector said agency officials had destroyed documents to cover up the Daschles’ role in minimizing inspections of Bellew’s planes. Linda Daschle insisted that she had recused herself from any decisions on that issue, and the IG later absolved her of any wrongdoing.
Daschle’s position on safety issues came up again when the FAA was considering mandating full criminal-background checks of all airport employees, which she opposed. DOT inspector general Mary Schiavo was at a meeting with then-Transportation Secretary Federico Pena and Daschle at which Daschle vehemently objected. “I thought her position on the background checks was insane,” says Schiavo. But Daschle’s position shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise, given that it’s exactly the same one taken by her former employer, the Air Transport Association.
After serving briefly as the FAA’s acting director, Daschle returned to lobbying in 1997, though federal law barred her from lobbying DOT for five years. Instead of going back to a trade association, Daschle joined a powerful law firm headed by former Sen. Howard Baker, Baker, Donelson, Bearman & Caldwell, where she is now a chair of the firm’s public policy practice group. Daschle has stayed largely under the radar, mostly lobbying the House and sticking to aviation clients. All that changed after September 11, when her role in lobbying for the airline bailout bill became public.
Not only have reporters revealed Daschle’s role in the airline bailout negotiations, but they have brought to light a provision in the 2000 transportation budget that required the FAA to buy baggage-scanners from one of Daschle’s clients, L-3 International. The DOT’s inspector general has found the L-3 equipment to be substandard, yet the FAA now has no choice but to purchase one of L-3’s scanners for every one it buys from an L-3 competitor. The L-3 machines have been so bad that the one at the Dallas-Ft. Worth airport leaked radiation, and most others purchased by the FAA have not been installed. The inspector general told Congress that the FAA’s requirement to buy L-3’s machines is one reason that DOT will not be able to meet the new mandate to screen all luggage for bombs for many years.
Daschle reiterates that she never lobbied her husband on any of these issues, nor has her firm. But when it comes to lobbying Congress, does it really matter whether a congressional spouse lobbies her husband? The House Democrats on whom Daschle focuses her attention aren’t likely to ignore calls from the majority leader’s wife. And given the soft currency of Washington’s access business, it’s awfully hard to separate influence in such concrete ways, especially when many of Daschle’s clients are lobbying both her husband and the Senate as well. The best example of this conflict came in 1999, when Daschle departed from her traditional aviation portfolio and took up the cause of drug company Schering-Plough, which was waging a fierce battle with the FDA to extend the patent on the allergy drug Claritin beyond its 2002 expiration. Daschle was one of many lobbyists the company hired to press its case, but the contract raised questions about Schering-Plough’s motives for hiring her, given that Daschle has no expertise in pharmaceutical issues or at the FDA.
Daschle took something of a beating in the press and from public interest groups for taking up Schering-Plough’s case, which if successful, would add billions of dollars to national prescription drug expenditures. “I was stunned at the criticism and how personal it became,” she confesses. Daschle says she took the client at the request of Howard Baker, but she eventually became “a believer” in Schering-Plough’s cause. And again, she insists she never lobbied the Senate.
Daschle may not have been lobbying the Senate, but Schering-Plough was, contributing $100,000 in soft money to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee over the past three years. The drug company has also been kind to Sen. Daschle’s pet charity, the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (NOFAS). In 1997, Richard Kinney, Schering-Plough’s in-house lobbyist who was working on the patent issue, joined the board and the company has sponsored NOFAS’s annual fundraiser, which both Daschles host every year. Sen. Daschle says he opposes the patent extension on its merits.
But Schering-Plough isn’t the only one of Linda Daschle’s clients to simultaneously seek good will from her husband: The air transport industry gave more than $100,000 in campaign contributions to the senator’s campaign in the last election cycle. Northwest Airlines, which paid Linda Daschle’s firm $190,000 in 1999, was the second-largest donor to Tom Daschle’s Senate campaign in 1998. Charles Barclay, the head of the American Association of Airport Executives, Linda’s former employer and now a client, has personally given $10,000 to the senator’s political action committee, DASHPAC. Daschle says Northwest Airlines is one of her husband’s constituents as the only major airline with comprehensive service to South Dakota. As for the others, she says, “All my clients have the right to lobby Tom Daschle and the Senate. What does not have to happen is for Linda Daschle to be involved in that effort.”
Gary Ruskin, director of the Congressional Accountability Project, says he isn’t concerned with who Linda’s clients are, but what Tom Daschle may have done for those clients. At least for Linda Daschle’s airline clients, the answer to that question is fairly clear: The airline bailout bill, shepherded through the Senate by Tom Daschle, sent nearly a billion dollars to American Airlines and Northwest Airlines. Northwest, which has received $404 million in cash grants from the government, actually posted $19 million profit in the third quarter.
So here’s a case where a senator’s wife gets a high-ranking government job, which in turn boosts her earning power as a lobbyist. She then represents clients who have business with and give money to her husband. Those clients pay her big bucks to help fight safety regulations and to win government money—money which helps pay the senator’s mortgage. Yet so far, the press and congressional ethics hawks have largely given the Daschles a pass. So why isn’t this a bigger story?
Mostly because no one in Congress has the slightest interest in raising it. Democrats certainly don’t want to attack one of their own, and as they point out in defending the Daschles, Republicans are married to lobbyists, too. In addition, both Republicans and Democrats are beneficiaries of Linda Daschle’s clients. “This town is so bizarre that Linda Daschle may even deliver campaign contributions to Trent Lott,” says the Heritage Foundation’s Ron Utt. Indeed, she freely admits to giving campaign contributions to Republicans.
So who’s left to scrutinize the relationship? The answer is the press. But Daschle has them covered too. Unlike Hillary a decade ago, Linda Daschle is a Beltway insider who understands the rules of the game. The main rule is that the effects of your actions, no matter how dubious—say, weakening airline safety—are never grounds for a scandal so long as you first, disclose your actions, and then, don’t violate the ethics rules in the process. If Tom or Linda Daschle had secretly taken a free pair of Superbowl tickets from Northwest Airlines and then pushed the airline bailout plan, that would be a big story. But the fact that Tom Daschle takes thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Northwest and his wife’s firm collects $200,000 a year to lobby for them is no problem at all.
Congress has no rules prohibiting members’ spouses from lobbying. Notoriously porous, congressional ethics rules were written on the not so unreasonable theory that it’s impossible to forbid each and every potential conflict of interest, and that in the end, the voters are the ultimate arbiters of congressional behavior.
Linda Daschle’s reputation for scrupulously adhering to the ethics rules shows just how well she understands the rules. But when it comes to a presidential election, a different set of rules comes into play: Win at all costs. And at this game, the Republicans have proved themselves uncommonly adept and not just within the chamber of the Supreme Court. If Tom Daschle poses a legitimate threat to Bush, his wife’s lobbying will attract more attention from partisan Republicans and investigative reporters.
These attacks on his wife may not hurt Tom Daschle in Washington, where politicos find very little unseemly. But the American voter is a different animal. Voters may not buy Linda Daschle’s defense of keeping her career at all costs. Nor are they likely to swallow the claim that her work has absolutely no bearing on her husband’s. If Linda Daschle lobbied one arm of Congress to weaken airline safety and give away billions of taxpayer dollars to corporate clients, the voters are likely to assume that her husband was in there, too. And they’ll probably be right. After all, American voters may not understand the inner workings of Washington politics, but they do understand the inner workings of marriage.