Does Sen. Max Baucus's Scandal Matter?

The former lead player on health care recommended his girlfriend for a U.S. attorney job

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Three months after taking point on health care reform, Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) is embroiled in scandal over working to secure his girlfriend a job as a U.S. attorney. Baucus, whose position as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee makes him one of the most powerful legislators in Congress, garnered significant praise and condemnation for his role in shepherding a centrist-friendly health care reform bill. But now attention focuses on Baucus's recommendation of Melodee Hanes, his girlfriend and former staffer (Baucus is separated from his wife). It's a clear conflict of interest, but the seriousness of the scandal -- and whether it matters at all -- is hotly debated.

  • Why It Matters  The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder explains. "That Baucus would ignore the conflict of the interest or so easily dismiss it calls into question his judgment and his ethics. That's a scandal," he writes. "So far as health care goes, it's a distraction. And Democrats don't need distractions. They need Baucus to be a spokesperson for his bill. Now, they're going to have to figure out a way around his self-created image crisis."
  • Clear Nepotism  The Washington Post's Ruth Marcus sympathizes. "Let’s stipulate that the modern workplace can be a messy place. People work long hours in close quarters. Things happen. Marriages fail," she writes. "The flip side of accepting the occasional messiness of the workplace is recognizing that romantic entanglements can limit your career choices. It would have been perfectly acceptable for Baucus to urge that a longtime staffer be given the prosecutor post. That same recommendation becomes inappropriate when sex is involved. Nepotism rules exist for a reason."
  • 'Non-Scandal'  The New York Daily News's Michael McAuliff rolls his eyes. "First of all, senior senators recommend U.S. attorneys to the White House, and Baucus suggested three, including his beloved Melodee Hanes. He couldn’t actually give her the job. That’s up to the administration," he writes. "A final point is that for the job she did get at the Justice Department, Baucus purportedly pulled no strings, and Justice officials are adamant she’s great at the work."
  • Baucus's Reccomendation Nothing Special  Politico's Manu Raju points out that this is far from unusual. "[I]n a clubby Washington, where political connections are the coin of the realm when it comes to landing the next big job, Baucus’s move is almost par for the course — even if it smacks of cronyism to those outside the Beltway," Raju writes. "Senators of both stripes have long advocated former aides, family members, friends and fundraisers for key government slots — and that alone could be enough to spare Baucus any punishment from the Senate Ethics Committee."
  • Washington's Double Standard  The Wall Street Journal fumes that Washington will be far kinder to Baucus than it was to Paul Wolfowitz, who was shamed out of the World Bank after promoting his girlfriend. "The ethical uproar was a politically convenient excuse, fanned by the media, to oust Mr. Wolfowitz when his real offense was that he was too hard on corruption," they write. "Mr. Baucus is a crucial player in health-care reform, and our guess is that neither Democrats nor their media allies will want to explore this nepotistic near-miss lest it interfere with that greater political goal. But if they don't, we will learn a good deal about workplace ethics and political double standards."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.