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Democrats and the 'Ethics' of Max Baucus

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Max Baucus' reputation as one of the most ethically challenged members of the U.S. Senate is well earned. The Montana Democrat's decision to retire in 2014 can't help but improve the chamber's sorry record of self-enrichment at taxpayers' expense. But Baucus has over a year left to do more mischief.    

Since 2001, Baucus has been chair of the enormously powerful Senate Finance Committee. His modus operandi has been helping individuals and corporations whose road to riches is paved with tax loopholes and other special deals. As such, he sits on top of an especially sordid government-lobbyist complex. At least 28 of his former aides have left "public service" to become tax lobbyists. The flow chart is simple: The lobbyists get tax breaks for their clients. Their clients pour dollars into their former boss's campaign chest.    

The revolving door -- whereby public employees leave government employ for full-figured salaries at private companies doing business with government -- is hardly unique to Baucus World. The president's helpers do it. So do senators and representatives, and their staffers. But Baucus is in a class by himself.    

Baucus spokespeople insist that former aides enjoy no special influence with the senator. Everything the senator does is for the good of the little people in Montana. Of course.    

But it's well known that his revolving-door staff uses these ties as a key component of their salary negotiations. Some command salaries over $500,000 -- surely not for their good looks alone.    

Meanwhile, the aides-turned-lobbyists are reportedly required to raise money for their old boss if they wish to remain in his good stead. The former staff director of the Finance Committee, Jeffrey Forbes, has personally given $25,000 to Baucus' political action committee and the Montana Democratic Party. Forbes' clients, among them Verizon and Altria, as well as his lobbying partners, have coughed up hundreds of thousands more.    

In putting together a package to avoid last January's "fiscal cliff," Baucus protected numerous corporate tax breaks. Companies with financing arms, such as General Electric, got a tax deal saving them $11.2 billion over two years. Then there was that amazing tax treat for Beam Inc. covering rum distilled in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Total cost to U.S. taxpayers: $220 million over 10 years.    

It was no surprise that Baucus voted last March against a Democratic budget proposal containing nearly $1 trillion in new revenues, mostly from wealthy Americans. Of his top eight ZIP codes for contributions, three are in Manhattan and one in Beverly Hills.    

Baucus now vows to continue the important work of tax reform. Both parties generally agree that closing loopholes is the first step to streamlining the tax code. But loopholes have been Baucus' stock in trade. Not a few special interests will want to cozy up to him for one last go-round.    

Former Rep. Billy Tauzin provides the model for parlaying elected office into the high life. The Louisiana Republican famously negotiated a Medicare drug bill highly favorable to the pharmaceutical industry, right before leaving the House for a multimillion-dollar-a-year job at ... the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association. Imagine the possibilities for Baucus as talks on tax reform commence.    

I could be all wrong. Baucus might use this opportunity to repair his less-than-stellar reputation. Nah. This is a man who in 2009 tried to get his then-girlfriend a job as U.S. attorney. He's clearly not big on appearances.

Many Democrats will be happy to see Baucus' taillights leave the Senate parking lot for the last time, but the party deserves some blame for his doings. To slow revolving-door empire building, Republicans put term limits on committee chairmen. Democrats have not. They should.   



See Other Political Commentary

See Other Commentaries by Froma Harrop.

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