The stereotypical congressperson is venal, petty, self-interested, and oblivious to the consequences of his or her actions. In other words, a terrible person.
In reality, this isn’t fair. Are most lawmakers compromised in one way or another? Yes. Are most angling for whatever political advantage they can take? Absolutely. But by and large, the people we send to Congress are doing the best they can to do good work and represent their constituents.
Montana Sen. Max Baucus, however, isn’t one of them.
By this point, if you pay attention to Washington minutiae, you’ll know that Baucus, who chairs the powerful Finance Committee, is retiring from the Senate after a 35-year career. Few people hold a job for that long, and when they leave, it’s usually with fanfare and fond farewells. “We were glad to have you, best of luck with your future” are the sort of things you can expect to hear.
And while his immediate colleagues are said to have given him a standing ovation, liberals and other Democratic activists were happy to see him go. “Good bye, Senator K Street,” said the Progressive Change Campaign Committee's Stephanie Taylor in a statement, mocking Baucus’s close ties to lobbyists. “The best news of the day,” wrote Markos Moulitsas, on Daily Kos, “because, quite frankly, that asshole is gone.”
If this seems harsh, recall just the last 12 years of Baucus’s career in the Senate. In 2001, the self-described “deficit hawk” worked with George W. Bush to craft his budget-busting tax cuts—he was the first Senate Finance Committee member to break ranks with his party—giving bipartisan cover to the bill and subverting opposition from his Democratic colleagues. Two years later, after winning reelection, he repeated the performance with the Medicare prescription-drug benefit, supporting a bill that gave billions to drug and insurance companies at the cost of taxpayer value.
You could give credit to Baucus for blocking President Bush’s 2005 push to privatize Social Security, but as Brian Beutler notes for Talking Points Memo, that seems like an odd “instance of liberal priorities lining up with Baucus’s venal decision making,” rather than an expression of commitment to the safety net.
In the last four years, Baucus’s thorough commitment to his self-interest has only increased, even as circumstances raised the stakes for public policy. After President Obama gave Baucus the lead on health-care reform in 2009, he spent months behind closed doors with Republican lawmakers in a doomed attempt to find common ground on what would become the Affordable Care Act. Some of that was undoubtedly necessary—senators like Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson surpassed Baucus in their mercenary instincts, and were looking for any excuse to jump ship. But Baucus spent too much time negotiating with Republicans, and in the process, gave wind to opponents of the bill, who whipped their supporters into a frenzy—a handful of Virginia conservatives, for example, showed their anger by burning Reps. Nancy Pelosi and Tom Perriello in effigy.
By the time health care left the Finance Committee, it was almost too late—the bill nearly died in early 2010, after Scott Brown won Ted Kennedy’s seat in Massachusetts.
Baucus never stopped poking his finger in Democratic eyes. He voted against the DREAM Act in 2010, joining Republicans in blocking a measure to give legal status to the children of unauthorized immigrants, and just last week, voted against legislation to expand background checks for guns, a modest response to last year’s massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. And looking forward, he’s already aligning with the GOP on tax reform, attacking Democrats for raising too much revenue in their budget, and joining Republican calls for a “revenue neutral” plan.
None of this is to say that there haven’t been moments of usefulness from Senator Baucus. In a little-noticed move during 2008, he issued a white paper outlining a plan for health-care reform that echoed proposals from other Democrats, aligning himself with liberals and other reform supporters. As Jonathan Cohn points out in The New Republic, this was a crucial step—he could have gone the path of the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan and stood against reform, potentially killing the project. Likewise, Baucus helped win buy-in from the pharmaceutical industry, which could have stopped the effort in its tracks.
On the whole however, Max Baucus has stood as an obstacle not just to liberals, but to sound policymaking. It’s tempting to defend Baucus by citing his political position: he’s a red-state Democrat who needs to distance himself from the party to win reelection. On some occasions, this is certainly true. But on gun control and the DREAM Act—both supported by his colleague, Jon Tester—it’s much harder to justify. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that even with his “independence,” Baucus, whose office has been a pipeline for lucrative lobbying jobs, is unpopular with Montana voters.
If there’s any bad news in Baucus’s retirement, it’s that red-state seats are hard to defend for Democrats. If there’s any good news, it’s that this gives former governor Brian Schweitzer a chance to shine. Schweitzer is the anti-Baucus: independent—which is necessary for a Montana Democrat—but principled, popular, and surprisingly progressive. He supports marriage quality, liberalization of marijuana laws, and voiced support for single-payer during the fight over health-care reform. And while he’s a gun owner, he also supports expanded background checks.
Likewise, with Baucus out, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden is likely to helm the Finance Committee. And while he has his disagreements with liberals—he worked with Paul Ryan to craft a Medicare reform plan—he’s far, far better for their interests than Senator Baucus.
Max Baucus is far from the worse person to grace the United States Senate. Still, when Americans express their disdain for politicians, they’re almost always thinking of people like him. Which is to say this: retiring is the best thing he’s done in years.