What’s the Matter with Max Baucus?
Though Claiming Triumph for Health Care, Troubles Mount for Max Baucus
By Pat Hill
After 30 years in Washington, Max Baucus has certainly gained stature in the U.S. Senate, but recent polls indicate Montana's senior senator may be losing popularity in Big Sky Country.
A Montana State University-Billings survey released in November gave Baucus a 44 percent approval rating, the lowest approval rating in the Senator's more than thirty years in Washington; 64 percent of those polled in a similar survey two years ago gave Baucus positive ratings. The battle for health care reform in Washington and a potential political scandal in Baucus' closet are the likely culprits causing Montanans to cool their ardor for the long-serving Democrat. News that Baucus has been one of the top recipients of insurance and health care industry campaign contributions, and that several of his former staffers now lobby for a constellation of special interests in the health care and insurance businesses, add fuel to the anti-Baucus fire (see sidebar).
A Baucus spokesperson, though, downplayed Max’s woes.
“Polls go up and polls go down. But legislating is about doing what's right not just for the moment, but for years and generations down the road,” Baucus' Communications Director Ty Matsdorf told the Associated Press. “For thirty years, Max has done what's right for our state, he has governed based on principles not on politics, and developed a trust with people across Montana as their voice in the U.S. Senate.”
The senator’s current woes, though, and his ties to special interests hardly reflect the image on which he originally campaigned. In 1978, Baucus literally walked across the state of Montana and talked with voters, representing himself as a man of the people, as he ran a successful campaign for the U.S. Senate. More than three decades later, Baucus is now Chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee. He has also been seen by many as the standard bearer for health care reform in the United States Senate; Baucus wrote the Senate version of the health care bill also known as the Baucus bill. As he struggled to bring consensus to an issue rife with disagreement among politicians in Washington, he also drew fire from both liberal and conser-vative detractors in Montana and the rest of the nation.
Critics on the right wanted Baucus and the rest of Congress to leave government out of health care reform entirely and forestall budget busting expenditures they said would come with it. Left-leaning critics accused Baucus of being, first, too willing to abandon single payer healthcare, in which the federal government would essentially take over the nation’s health care system, and then for having scuttled a public option system for healthcare designed to compete with private insurance. The senator had been cozying up to insurance companies, critics claimed, that were trying to retain their profits and maintain an intolerable status quo.
All the while, Baucus seemed intent on forging a compromise bill, any bill, that would pass the Senate, a stance that drew criticism from moderates and independents.
"If there's 60 senators who can reach agreement, I'm for it," Baucus told The Washington Post, a now infamous quote used by both liberal and conservative critics who see the senator as having preferred any healthcare bill, no matter how flawed, to no bill at all.
A final vote on the Baucus bill took place in the Senate on Christmas Eve, the first Christmas Eve vote in the U.S. Senate since 1895. The measure passed on a 60-39 vote. Senate Democrats announced on Dec.19 that they had secured the 60th vote needed to ensure passage of the Baucus bill.
The bill bans insurance companies from denying benefits or charging higher premiums due to pre-existing medical conditions. The legislation also requires nearly every person in the U.S. to have health insurance, which has never been mandated before; government subsidies will help pay insurance costs for low-income people. The Senate health care reform will cost around $1 trillion over the next decade, and is slated to be paid for with taxes, fees, and cuts to the nation's Medicare reimbursement program. Baucus and President Obama claim that the bill will not increase the nations now enormous budget deficit, while Republicans say such calculations are the result of gimmicks and trickery, and that the bill will indeed compound the country’s staggering debt and annual deficit.
Vowing to fight until the bitter end, Republicans decried the Dec. 19 deal that secured the vote of Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Nebraska) through tighter abortion restrictions and a permanent exemption for Nebraska from paying for Medicaid expansion required by the bill, a special deal for Nebraska to be paid by other states.
The Baucus bill also provides additional Medicare monies for victims of certain environmental health hazards. The beneficiaries in Montana are residents of Libby who were exposed to asbestos from nearby vermiculite mining operations that have since shut down.
The passage of the Baucus bill in the Senate doesn't bring an end to the health care reform fight in Congress; the health care bill passed by the House of Representatives in November will need to be reconciled with the Senate bill before it can be sent on to President Obama for that final key signature needed to make the health care reform bill the law of the land.
The House and Senate will begin to try and iron out differences between the two bills this month. Abortion and a public option remain stumbling blocks.
Baucus told the Associated Press after the Christmas Eve vote that he's “very happy to see people getting health care they could not get.”
But he may not have been happy about attention he received recently regarding a federal job nomination he made for his girlfriend.
On Dec. 4, Baucus' Communications Director Ty Matsdorf confirmed the story that Roll Call reported in early December regarding the senator's nomination of former Montana staffer Melodee Hanes for the U.S. Attorney position in Montana. Matsdorf told the AP that Baucus and Hanes “began their relationship in the summer of 2008 after Baucus separated from his wife.”
Roll Call reported that Hanes worked as the regional finance director for Baucus' 2002 re-election campaign. From 2003 to 2005, she served as Baucus' field director and counsel, and from 2005 until last spring, Hanes was Baucus' state director and counsel.
On Dec. 6, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele called for a Senate Ethics Committee investigation of Baucus' actions. Steele told the AP that the panel should determine “why Senator Baucus put his personal needs above those of the people of Montana.” But Baucus told the AP that he had appointed an independent, third-party reviewer and established “an open and fair process” that resulted in Hanes, Mike Cotter, and Mike Wheat being nominated and sent to the White House for consideration.
“Senator Baucus recommended each of the three candidates based solely on qualifications, and merit, knowing which ever one the White House selected would serve Montana well,” Matsdorf told the AP.
Baucus' office said “there were a number of factors that went into Ms. Hanes' decision to withdraw” from consideration for the U.S. attorney post, including that the couple’s relationship was “changing.”
More details though regarding Baucus' relationship with Hanes surfaced that contradicted the senator’s stated reason for withdrawing his girlfriend’s nomination.
In December, Jodi Ravi, a former reporter for the Missoulian, reported that the paper told Baucus in March it was preparing to run a story about the senator’s romantic relationship with Hanes, who he had nominated for U.S. Attorney.
The following day, just after Baucus was led to believe the story was about to break, Hanes withdrew from consideration.
Subsequently, the Missoulian published an editorial chronicling the withdrawal of Hanes' nomination that contained a quote from Baucus on his handling of the matter. Baucus said his recommendation of Hanes, a former staff member with whom he was romantically involved, was done “all in an above-board way.”
“Well, actually, no. It wasn’t,” The Missoul-ian’s scolding editorial read. “Had [Baucus] been forthright,” the editorial continued, “all this probably would have blown over…. Instead, many Montanans are seriously questioning Baucus' judgement just at the moment we should be focusing on his role in national health care reform….when someone in a position of public trust and authority uses his position to further the career of someone he is romantically linked to, that warrants full disclosure and public scrutiny.…Baucus exercised poor judgment in this matter not once, but repeatedly.”
The Missoulian went on to say that the paper was deeply disappointed with Baucus for his poor handling of the entire incident, that the Hanes nomination was unethical, and that Baucus “failed to disclose his personal relationship with Hanes to either Dana Christiansen, whom he appointed to review applications, or Sen. Jon Tester, with whom he interviewed finalists for the position.”
“Mel would have been an excellent U.S. attorney for Montana,” Baucus told the AP. “I, for one, did not want her relationship with me to disqualify her from applying for the position.”
Hanes withdrew in March, and was hired in June as a top official in the Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
“Not surprisingly to anyone who's looked at her resume, [Hanes] got the DOJ job on her merit,” Baucus said.
Further compounding his problems and adding to the appearance of impropriety, Baucus gave Hanes a nearly $14,000 pay raise in 2008, after their romantic relationship had begun, and had her accompany him on a taxpayer funded trip to the Middle East and Southeast Asia, though Hanes was not involved with foreign policy.
Preferring to put questions of ethics and back room political deals behind him, on Dec. 24, after the historic Christmas Eve vote in the Senate, Baucus sent out the following message by e-mail:
“We have much to look forward to as the end of 2009 approaches, and much to reflect on. It has been one heck of a year. Before it's over, we will have an opportunity to gather with family and friends, take stock of ourselves and the year past, and give thanks that we call the Last Best Place home.”
Editor’s Note: To make matters worse for Baucus, a YouTube video viewed over 177,000 times as of late December purports to show the senator intoxicated in a recent speech on the Senate floor. During the 5 minute video, while it does not conclusively demonstrate that Baucus was drunk, he rambles, often slurs his speech, pronounces President Obama’s name Obamba, repeats himself often, and seems generally to conceivably comport himself in a manner consistent with intoxication. Whether Baucus had indeed been drinking cannot be determined. His manner of speech is naturally stumbling and halting, though in this case to a remarkable degree. His performance on the Senate floor, though, whatever his condition happened to have been, did not reflect well on the senator, and so this note has been added to the above story dealing with Baucus' woes as we go to press. The incident, what’s more, in that it suggests intox-ication while on the job, is not the first to have been reported to this publication.
The Max Baucus Health Care Lobbyist Complex
Following the Money
s the chair of the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. Max Baucus has been at the center of the congressional effort to craft health care reform legislation, a top priority of President Obama. The Baucus-headed Finance Committee has been singled out by advocates and news organizations as the toughest obstacle for the President’s health care priorities. Containing more moderate and conservative members may not be the only reason. The committee is packed with lawmakers who have close ties to the health care and insurance industries, receiving large campaign contributions as their former staffers turn around to lobby for the very interests whose issues—in this case health care—they previously worked on. Baucus, as chair, stands out in particular.
Lobbying disclosure filings for the first quarter of 2009 reveal that five of Baucus' former staffers currently work for a total of twenty-seven different organizations that are either in the health care or insurance sector or have a noted interest in the outcome. The organizations represented include some of the top lobbying organizations in the health sector: Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Researchers of America (PhRMA), America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), Amgen, and GE Health Care.
The former staffers turned lobbyists include two former chiefs of staff, David Castagnetti and Jeff Forbes, and one former legislative assistant, Scott Olsen. Other former staffers working with health care portfolios include Angela Hoffman and Roger Blauwet.
The overall health and insurance sectors haven’t just been kind to Baucus' staffers, but they’ve also aided his campaigns handsomely over the years, especially in his barely contested 2008 reelection campaign. In 2008, Baucus received $1,148,775 from the health sector and $285,850 from the insurance sector. For his career he has received $2,797,381 from the health sector and $1,170,313 from the insurance sector.
The connections from Baucus to his staffers-turned-lobbyists to their health care sector clients are clear, extensive, and in some cases overlap. Most of the organizations are directly involved in the health care or insurance industries. A couple, the Business Roundtable and Wal-Mart, may seem to fall outside of the realm of health care, however both are playing key roles. The Business Roundatble is lobbying heavily on the issue and Wal-Mart is a big seller of prescription medications and has a large stake in the outcome.
All data derives from OpenSecrets.org.
Reprinted from the Sunlight Foundation, Transparency in Government.