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Max Baucus

U.S. Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) listens during a hearing before the Joint Deficit Reduction Committee, also known as the "Super Committee," September 13, 2011 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. (Photo by: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Montana’s Not-So-Super Senator

Sen. Max Baucus helped dig the U.S. into debt; now he’s working on “Deficit Reduction.”

BY Paul Thomas Richards

On June 7, 2001, as the Marine Corps band played “Hail to the Chief,” President George W. Bush strutted into the White House East Room to sign the “Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001” into law. That first round of Bush’s infamous tax cuts–which President Obama in December agreed to extend–effectively transferred hundreds of billions of dollars from the U.S. Treasury to multi-millionaires and billionaires during the last decade.

President Bush signed every letter of his name on the legislation with a different pen, each of which was given as a memento to key political supporters. One pen went to Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, who helped push the tax cuts through the Senate–then split 50-50 along party lines–on a 62-38 vote. “Every day it looks like a better and better decision,” Baucus said at the White House ceremony. “In many respects … I helped the party. We Democrats would have been in trouble in 2002 just saying ‘no’ to every one of the president’s proposals.”

Baucus’ gambit paid off in the years following: While the federal budget surplus began disappearing and the deficit began steadily climbing, Baucus raked in more special-interest cash than any other senator, according to a 2006 Public Citizen report reviewing the years 1999 to 2005. For his 2008 re-election bid, Baucus collected nearly half of his $12 million campaign kitty from K Street lobbyists and industries he “regulates,” while Montanans contributed merely 5 percent.

Far more money continues to flow to America’s richest citizens because of the tax cuts: The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office found that the rich benefited most from the cuts, by far. And in 2010, the CBO estimated that extending the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy from 2011 to 2020 means foregoing $2.9 trillion in tax revenue, plus another $660 billion for interest and debt service costs.

Now, in an only-inside-the-Beltway absurdity comparable to President Obama choosing Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geithner to straighten out the economic chaos they helped create, Baucus is a key player in the 12-member “Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction.” The brand-new body charged with cutting at least $1.5 trillion over 10 years emerged from the agonizing debt negotiations between the president and GOP leaders–who in late July did manage to agree on $1 trillion in cuts over the next 10 years. (Although that wasn’t enough to avert a U.S. debt downgrade from rating agency Standard & Poor’s.)

In other words, a man instrumental in passing Bush’s tax cuts–which eliminated a $5.6 trillion budget surplus predicted for 2001-2010 and largely triggered today’s so-called “debt crisis”–is now tasked with finding at least $1.5 trillion in federal budget savings.

The so-called “Super Committee” or “Super Congress” must report to both chambers of Congress by November 23, where votes will be strictly thumbs up or thumbs down, with no filibusters or legislative amendments allowed. We can rest assured that Baucus will not express any regret for his role in the deep fiscal hole the country finds itself stuck in.

Baucus, from a prominent Montana family whose members had all previously run for state and federal offices as Republicans, was never involved in the Democratic Party before first running for a state legislature seat in 1972 as a Democrat. (Before beginning the campaign, he reportedly walked into a newspaper office in Missoula, the state’s most progressive city, and asked which party it would be more prudent to be part of.) He entered the U.S. Senate in 1978.

“He may represent a state populated by only 967,000 people,” GQ magazine reported in 2009, “but as chairman of the committee that controls the money and as the recipient of very large amounts of lobbying dollars per citizen represented, Baucus controls the fate of every bill to affect all 300 million Americans. Healthcare? Cap and trade? Light rail? All roads lead through Baucus…”

Paul Thomas Richards has covered politics and resource issues in the American West since 1968. He lives in Boulder, Mont.

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