This man's retirement will shake up the US

2013-06-04 09:32
Senate Finance Committee Chairperson Senator Max Baucus. (Charles Dharapak, AP)

Senate Finance Committee Chairperson Senator Max Baucus. (Charles Dharapak, AP)

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Chicago - A number of congressional retirements are going to take place before the 2014 mid-term elections. Of these, only one is in the House of Representatives – the infamous Michele Bachmann – and dominated headlines for most of last week. But although Bachmann is mercifully on her way out, the most important retirement will not be hers.

There is one incumbent leaving office who will shake up important ways the USA is run – a man whose name you may not know, from a state you may not know: Democratic Montana Senator Max Baucus.
Luckily for those who value sanity in the people who lead the world's most influential country, Bachmann told everyone last week she was packing in her illustrious, if legislatively insignificant, congressional career. Although Bachmann began her political career as a Democrat, supporting Jimmy Carter in the 1976 election (as did her husband, Marcus), the shifting tides of American politics and her own dedication to her own interpretation of Christianity, alongside her rabid nationalism referred to as "American exceptionalism" means she was destined for what is now the Republican Party.
Sadly for Democrats, other than Bachmann's perennial nonsensical blasts when there is a camera nearby, there is little that her retirement will really change. Bachmann's replacement will undoubtedly be a Republican, thanks to the generous drawing of the district, and take the same votes that she would have in the House of Representatives. Putting Bachmann out to pasture will hardly make a difference to the way Congress works.
While she is the only retirement from the House of Representatives thus far (although some seats will open up due to technicalities) there are seven retirements from the Senate, as well as the departure of New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg who died on Monday morning. While Bachmann's exit has received the most headlines, it is the departure of the aforementioned Democratic Senator Max Baucus, whom you likely haven't heard of, whose retirement will have the largest impact on the US government. His term is up during the next election cycle in 2014.

Making room for significant movement

Baucus, virtually because he stuck around for six six-year terms, rose up in the leadership ranks of the Democratic Senate leadership to head up the powerful Senate Finance Committee. It was from this perch he demolished any hopes Democrats and the Obama administration had in implementing the kind of public healthcare they desired – in fact Baucus cut off virtually the entire left side of the debate – and is meaningfully responsible for the watered-down version of healthcare reform currently being implemented. Coincidentally… healthcare providers are some of his biggest backers.
Baucus has also voted against Democrat-backed gun-control bills, and has voted to cut food stamps. Tobacco giant Altria (owner of Phillip Morris) is also a major donor, and benefited from Baucus sewing a tax-increase into a bill (the bill was to fix roads) that targeted loose tobacco, which smokers roll into cigarettes themselves – largely because they were significantly cheaper. He has voted to make bankruptcy harder, and against a firm deadline for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq (although subsequently called for managed withdrawal). He also voted for the Bush tax cuts in 2001, which began to undo the budgetary discipline initiated by the Clinton regime.

Baucus has a plethora of former staff members working as lobbyists – meaning there is virtually a direct line between lobby groups, their clients who do business with government, and the chairperson of the Senate Finance committee. Hardly the ideal situation for taxpayers, who have already hoofed out hundreds of millions of dollars in discounts, subsidies and loopholes almost singularly directed by Baucus.
Laws are usually drafted by and voted on in committee before being introduced to the floor – it is the committee members who decide what is in and what is not, before the rest of the upper chamber clambers all over the bill. In many instances, it is only the committee that knows each and every detail of the bill, as most other Senators try to cram the bill with benefits for his or her state. So the power of heading up a committee cannot be overstated.
Baucus' departure means some significant movement within the authoritative institutions of the Senate and therefore the body's Finance Committee. Firstly, he is likely to be replaced in the Senate by former Montana governor Brian Schweitzer, also a Democrat. Although Montana is a conservative state, Democrats can win there, as Senator Jon Tester did during re-election in November, as well as Governor Steve Bullock. Schweitzer is a massively popular figure in the state, and is outlandishly liberal in comparison to Baucus – a more favourable Democrat, if you will, particularly when it comes to energy policy and healthcare.  While it was rumoured Schweitzer was mulling a presidential run in 2016, there is as much speculation he will run for Baucus' Senate seat, and would easily clear the field if he decided to do so.

Reaching across the aisle

Baucus' retirement also means Oregon Senator Ron Wyden will likely move up to chair the Finance Committee. Although Wyden, like Baucus, tends to make decisions against his party at times, he is more predictable and has already moved toward reducing the US tax code to three payable brackets, so his aims are hardly hidden. He also doesn't share the army of former staffers becoming lobbyists to dictate how his policy is formed.

Wyden is certainly bipartisan, and has a record of working with Republicans on finance issues. Wyden's departures from his party are also votes of notable pride, such as when he voted against the Authorisation of Military Force against Iraq in 2002, and he was one of only 67 of 435 House members to vote against the discriminatory Defence of Marriage Act (which forbade the federal government from recognising gay marriages in states where they were legal) in 1996. Wyden also has a proud civil rights record, most recently with his stances against the Obama administration's drone policies.

Wyden is, without a doubt, more of a liberal than Baucus, but has made his name by reaching across the aisle. And in the poisoned US political climate at the moment, that can only be a good thing.
So totsiens to Michele Bachmann, but the top moves in the US congress will all occur due to the departure of Max Baucus.
- Simon Williamson is a freelance writer. Follow @simonwillo on Twitter.

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