A Fond Farewell to Max Baucus

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Photo: YURI GRIPAS/2011 AFP

When a member of Congress representing hostile partisan turf retires, his party’s usual response is to worry. Getting reelected as a Democrat in a state like Montana is hard, but getting elected in the first place is even harder. But the usual reasoning does not apply to Max Baucus, who just announced that he won’t seek reelection next year. Baucus is pretty unpopular and would have been an underdog. There’s a pretty popular Democratic ex-governor, Brian Schweitzer, waiting to run in his place, making Baucus’s retirement probably a small net increase in the Democrats’ chances of holding the seat. But the narrow calculations of that one seat are swamped by the larger value of one preeminent fact: Max Baucus is no longer going to be around to screw everything up.

Democrats need to hold more unfriendly territory to control the Senate than Republicans do, so they need to have members who defect from the party line. But you want to stash your Max Baucuses — Bauci? — somewhere relatively harmless. The trouble with Baucus is that he is the ranking Democrat on the Finance Committee. And the Finance Committee is the center of all the policy action.

Baucus’s guiding principle as a legislator was to place himself in the center of the action. In 2001, he negotiated the Bush tax cuts behind closed doors, subverting any chance of stopping a ruinous bill before the opposition had any chance. He not only did the same with the prescription drug bill in 2003 — which was written Republican-style, to maximize profits to affected industries rather than taxpayer value — he helped keep his own party off the conference committee that negotiated it. He is currently negotiating bipartisan tax reform and ostentatiously declining to insist that the process yield more revenue. (Baucus attacked the Democrats’ budget for raising too much revenue.)

The combination of Baucus’s enthusiasm for legislating and indifference to policy made him an ideal target for lobbying. The New York Times recently reported that at least 28 of his former aides have found (usually lucrative) jobs as lobbyists, a racket whose value will diminish as Baucus exits the scene.

But their loss will almost certainly be Baucus’s gain. We don’t yet know for a fact that Baucus will hang out a shingle as a lobbyist when he leaves office, any more than we know that Nerlins Noel will try his hand at professional basketball after leaving the University of Kentucky, but it is an outcome so probable it can practically be stated as fact. Baucus has an ex-wife; a new, former-staffer wife; the lowest net worth of any Senator; and a mortgage on a $900,000 home in Washington.

That leaves Baucus with about a year and a half of auditioning for clients while also serving as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, while his lobbyist trainees frantically cash in before their most lucrative window closes. Finally, Baucus’s self-interest and the national interest are aligning behind one decision: He is leaving elected office.