the national interest

Max Baucus Is Making Bank

U.S. Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) listens during a hearing before the Joint Deficit Reduction Committee, also known as the supercommittee, September 13, 2011 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee heard from Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf on
Show me the money. Photo: Alex Wong/2011 Getty Images

Max Baucus, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has an op-ed today in The Wall Street Journal, co-authored with his House Republican counterpart Dave Camp. They sound very idealistic. “We are dedicated to writing bills in an open and transparent fashion. No cutting deals behind closed doors,” Baucus and Camp assure us. Tax reform “has to be about restoring some trust in the process of government.”

If this sounds just a tad defensive, perhaps it is because openness and building trust in government are not exactly the hallmarks of Baucus’s career. In an interesting coincidence of timing, Baucus’s op-ed appears two days after a deep report by Eric Lipton about the Baucus industrial complex on K Street. No fewer than 28 Baucus alumni have gone on to work as tax lobbyists over the last decade. Baucus’s staff serves as a kind of tax lobbyist grad school, with salaries of upwards of half a million dollars for the lucky graduates.

For Baucus, this is all to the good. As a perpetually vulnerable Democrat in a red state, he gains access to a vast network of lobbyists with a deep interest in securing his reelection:

Several of the lobbyists regularly fly to Big Sky, Mont., for weekend fund-raising retreats that Mr. Baucus hosts, or attend more intimate events in Washington like a gathering last month near the Capitol, where Paul Wilkins, Mr. Baucus’s chief of staff, talked about the millions of dollars Mr. Baucus will need to raise for his re-election campaign next year.

Among them, the top givers include Jeffrey A. Forbes, Mr. Baucus’s former Finance Committee staff director, who has donated a total of at least $25,000 to Mr. Baucus, his political action committee or the Montana Democratic Party. He attended the retreat in February at the Big Sky resort, which included skiing, snowmobiling and a big family dinner at Buck’s T-4 Lodge. The totals grow much bigger — to hundreds of thousands of dollars — when donations from Mr. Forbes’s clients, including Verizon and Altria, and other partners at his lobbying firm, are counted.

But this mutually beneficial arrangement is more problematic for those of us who are neither Baucus staffers turned lobbyists nor Max Baucus. Baucus’s turf is not some policy backwater. The modern Republican agenda revolves around taxes, and the need to finance government affects all the most contentious partisan disputes.

If you’re a liberal, in particular, you really don’t want your point man on these issues to be a perpetually vulnerable Democrat from a red state. Max Baucus is going to do things like vote for the Bush tax cuts, let Republicans string him along for months and months and months on health-care reform before predictably bailing, or vote against his own party’s budget. Why? Because he has political needs of his own: to be seen as bipartisan, to be part of the action, to have something to dangle at the businesses he wants to cut him large campaign checks. Those needs conflict with, and frequently override, any commitment to a sensible governing agenda.

At the moment, President Obama wants to persuade Republicans to reduce some tax deductions on the rich in return for cutting spending on retirement programs. Republicans insist that 100 percent of the proceeds from closing tax deductions must be plowed into lower tax rates. The path of least resistance for Baucus is to go along with the Republican plan, which would allow his committee to sit at the center of a vast tax-reform process and shake loose a fortune in donations.

Max Baucus Is Making Bank