Everything's Coming Up Baucus

One thing I'd forgotten during the long debate about Clinton versus Obama on health care, and in speculation about the Senate filibuster, is that the key legislative player, the chokepoint through which health care reform must pass, is Max Baucus, Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. But he's not just Finance Committee Chairman, he's also a terrible Senator! Indeed, on core economic policy issues he's probably the worst Senator -- a little bit right-wing, a lot corrupt and unprincipled. Ezra Klein has a piece on Baucus and health reform that nods in the direction of Baucus' critics but then waxes optimistic:

This time around, however, Baucus has given health reformers reason for optimism. He has staffed up, hiring Liz Fowler, a well-regarded health-policy staffer with immense Hill experience. He's held a series of hearings on the need to reform the system, inviting experts to testify on everything from the explosion in costs to the failures of the insurance market. More importantly, his statements at these hearings have been invariably action-oriented. He opened a recent session by saying, "Today let us talk again about health-care reform. Let us hear from the experts about how to do it right. And let us plan, next year, to actually do something about it."

I'm not actually sure what the reason for optimism is. At a minimum, while Baucus' evident interest in the subject does seem to boost the chances that something called "health care reform" will pass, I don't see any reason to be confident that good health care reform will pass. Baucus was an architect of the 2003 Medicare Reform bill so we might get something like that -- a bill that does, just as liberals wanted, provide seniors with a prescription drug benefit under Medicare but does so at enormous fiscal cost in terms of bribes to drug companies and pharmaceutical companies and bad structural changes to Medicare.

But I dunno. Maybe Baucus has changed his ways. His campaign website does include this stirring section on economic justice:

  • As Chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, Max was a chief architect of the 2008 Stimulus Bill designed to limit the economic downturn in the U.S. by boosting Main Street economies through tax relief for individuals and businesses. Using his seniority on the Senate Finance Committee, Max co-wrote the largest tax cut in a generation, providing $1.35 trillion in relief, including more than $115 million for Montanans to pump into local economies.
  • Max improved the 2001 tax relief package to make sure that more than 34,000 moderate and low-income Montanans got the tax relief they deserve by expanding the child tax credit. That money is best spent in neighborhood stores.
  • Coming from a seven-generation ranching family, Max know how important passing family farms and businesses on to the next generation is, which is why he fought to repeal the estate tax in the 2001 tax package.

That's right -- thanks to Max Baucus, Bush's hugely unaffordable and massively regressive tax cut package cut ever-so-slightly less regressive at the cost of a bipartisan imprimateur that scuttled any hopes of defeating in the Senate. And he fought for estate tax repeal, because if you're a rancher who also happens to be a multi-millionaire -- or, indeed, if you're an extraordinarily wealthy person of any sort -- then Max Baucus is on your side.

Needless to say, his number one, three, four, and five contributors this cycle are firms in the health care or insurance industries. Of course it's natural for anyone who has his job to rake in a lot of bucks from those kind of companies as they seek to influence legislation, but Baucus isn't exactly the kind of guy with a long record of standing up to special interests.

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Matthew Yglesias is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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