THE BLOG

Max Baucus, the Senator from K Street -- A Poster Boy for Campaign Finance Reform

05/08/2013 12:48 pm ET | Updated Jul 08, 2013
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Soon-to-be retired Senator Max Baucus from Montana will long be remembered for his numerous sellouts to special interests at the expense of his own constituents and the nation, exemplified most recently by his being one of four "Democratic" Senators to vote against the Manchin-Toomey bill to expand background checks for gun purchases. He has served his paymasters year in and year out in his long Senate career, leaving little doubt in anyone's mind as to whom he really represents -- his nickname is the "Senator from K Street," and he alone carries that distinction.

We often forget the power of those we elect, especially to the Senate. If they hang around long enough -- Baucus has been reelected to six terms -- they often can become Chairs of Senate committees, as Baucus did when he became the Chairman of the powerful Finance Committee, despite representing a state with just over 1 million people -- less than 1/3 of 1 percent of the U.S. population. In Congress, elevation in the party bureaucracy is achieved primarily by tenure, allowing individuals like Max Baucus to rise to positions of incredible influence simply by hanging around long enough. Can you imagine any corporation functioning with a system of promotions from within based on length of tenure and not ability?

Two weeks ago, Baucus voted against those sensible background checks in the Manchin-Toomey bill that would have identified the mentally ill and criminals to prevent them from purchasing guns. Seventy-Nine percent of Baucus' own constituents who vote in Montana -- a gun carrying state -- support background checks. Yet Max and three other "Dems" voted against the legislation, along with Majority Senate Leader Harry Reid, who carries a B rating from the NRA. Reid did not cast a vote due to procedural issues, and said he will bring up the bill again later this year, but the pressure is growing to act sooner. The NRA achieved its victory in defeating this bill mainly through its legal bribery of 45 Senators who failed to do the right thing and vote for expanding background checks. The price tag was at least $8,165,490.00 paid into their campaigns, according to Mayors Against Illegal Guns. Does this gross act alone not scream out as an example of the need for major campaign finance reform?

A few days after the vote, the flak came fast and furious from the public, directed mainly at Baucus and the three other Dems who helped scuttle this legislation. Baucus arrogantly announced he wasn't worried about ads against him, as they would not be aired in Montana. Then, just days later, he suddenly announced his retirement from the Senate at the end of his current term. He knew he was in for the fight of his political career, and so he decided to retire with a generous pension that we pay for. I say good riddance.

Another one of Baucus' political shenanigans had to do with the small town of Libby, in Lincoln County, Montana. In 2011, according to the Census Bureau, the population of Libby was just 2,625, and it was also home to a now closed mine that produced vermiculite, an ingredient in insulation, potting soil and fertilizers. According to a terrific 2011 article by union organizer Kay Tillow, the vermiculite mined in Libby contained asbestos, and 400 deaths were attributed to the mine, with over 1,700 people in Libby contracting diseases related to asbestos exposure, such as mesothelioma and asbestosis. The asbestos from this mine polluted other parts of northwest Montana as well, and the long-range effects of that contamination are estimated to continue through 2020. The W.R. Grace Company, which owned the mine, took no responsibility for this environmental disaster, which the EPA has been working to clean up since 1999, with a cost already exceeding $447 million. With the mine off the hook for reparations, enter Senator Baucus.

As Senate Finance Committee chairman, Baucus held great sway in 2009 when health care was being debated on Capitol Hill and during the drafting of the Affordable Care Act (a/k/a "Obamacare") bill. Baucus famously announced during the health care debate that, "...single payer was not an option on the table." During one of the Committee's hearings, eight activists for Medicare For All, including doctors and nurses later dubbed "The Baucus 8," insisted that single payer be included in the debate. Instead, Baucus had them forcibly removed from the room in handcuffs by police, later joking, "We need more police." Baucus made sure that single payer was indeed off the table, along with the public option, robbing the nation of a major opportunity to debate the merits of a health care program that we must go to sooner rather than later. We simply cannot sustain this broken-down system where health care costs continue to rise, more and more people are denied the care they need, and the profits of the insurance industry continue to skyrocket at the expense of our nation's health. The current model of health care delivery makes no sense -- except to those rapacious insurers and their bottom line. It's not too hard to figure out who was most grateful for the hardnosed tactics employed by the senior Senator from Montana.

So while Baucus was denying the rest of America an opportunity to truly fix our dysfunctional health care system, he did see fit to include in the ACA bill full health care coverage for those sick and needy souls in and around Libby under Medicare, regardless of their age -- a provision that might be called "Medicare for All...The People of Libby, Montana." Baucus knew that only Medicare would deliver quality health care to all of his ill constituents at home. Only two months after the ACA bill was passed, the Social Security administration set up an office in Libby to sign up the ill for Medicare. It's amazing how fast government can act when the right button is pushed. Baucus even included a special clause in the ACA to deliver Medicare without the Congressional Budget Office scoring it. Imagine what might have been if he had allowed that debate to include Medicare For All Americans? That selfish decision was undoubtedly a trade-off with the insurance industry -- giving them the watered down ACA in exchange for delivering universal health care to his constituents who were in great need of it.

According to votesmart.org -- which everyone should use to find out how much their representatives in Congress are receiving from special interests and from whom that money is coming, as well as their representatives' voting records on key issues -- the Baucus moneymaking machine is quite impressive. In the 2012 cycle alone, he raked in $12,383,551.00 and spent $10,836,569.00, with a surplus balance of $3,594,923.00. His top donors were in Finance/Insurance/Real Estate, giving $2,559,295.00 to his campaign. The Health Industry came in at number two, with $2,146, 897.00, and Lawyers and Lobbyists came in third, with $1,269,584.00. A total of 13 different business sectors donated to his campaign, with health care related businesses included in about five of those sectors.

Baucus' voting record for the past few years certainly reflects the largess he has received from his donors, as when he voted for the "free" trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama, agreements that have failed to produce jobs at home or aid the people of those countries in achieving a better standard of living, while producing greater trade deficits between America and those countries. Some of Baucus' other "greatest hits" include voting against importing prescription drugs from Canada; voting for the Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline; voting for a cut to food stamps to the needy; voting no on the FCC regulating the internet and broadband industry; and voting against disclosure of financial transactions of Executive Branch employees. What a guy. To be fair, he has cast the right votes on other bills -- such as voting for an increase in taxes on those earning more than $1 million -- but it cannot be denied that "da money" has had a profound effect on his decision-making and is an impediment to good governing in the interest of the majority of the American people.

All of this should serve as a cautionary tale and a wake up call as we move toward the midterm elections in 2014. It is a disservice for the Democratic party to focus on protecting incumbency and maintaining their majority in the Senate with counterproductive, pseudo-Democrats like Max Baucus. The Progressive community is revving up to become more aggressive, vocal and visible this election cycle in backing truly Progressive candidates to defeat the likes of Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, Eric Cantor, loony Michele Bachman and the other right-wing creeps that have paralyzed Congress with their extremism. Good strategy. With a strong, Progressive Democratic majority in Congress, we can finally begin to focus on taking back our democracy by passing an amendment to overturn Citizens United .

A Quinnipiac University poll released a few days ago announced that Dems are leading Republicans by 4 points overall among voters as they seek to take back control of the House in 2014. Of course, it's a long way until next year, and we need the right kind of Dems -- as in true progressives -- to replace these Tea Party kooks, not more of those tepid "Blue Dogs" that Rahm Emanuel dumped on us when he was DCCC chair. It is high time we find, nurture and create the true Progressive leaders of tomorrow. For this to become a reality, however, the DNC, DSCC and DCCC must change their thinking and strategy of protecting incumbents like Max Baucus at all costs, whether worthy or not.

- with Jonathan Stone