Max Baucus' critics condemned Montana's senior U.S. senator earlier this year for taking millions of dollars from the health care industry as he led the effort to reform it. With Congress attempting to pass historic climate change legislation, critics are voicing the same refrain, claiming Baucus is beholden to the energy and agriculture interests filling his campaign coffers.
Democrats in the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee voted 11-1 in November to approve legislation that would cut greenhouse gas emissions 20 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. Republicans boycotted the vote, and Baucus, the second-highest ranking member of the committee, cast the only "no" vote.
"While I am voting no on this particular bill," Baucus said, "let me be crystal clear: as a member of the EPW and Agriculture committees, as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and most importantly, as a Montanan who wants our children and grandchildren to be able to enjoy the outdoors the way we can today, I'm going to work to get climate change legislation that can get 60 votes, get through the United States Senate, and signed into law."
But some groups advocating for aggressive climate change legislation wonder if Baucus, by pushing for legislation that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 17 instead of 20 percent, is kowtowing to his donors. For example, according to Center for Responsive Politics data crunched by Oil Change International, Baucus received more money from coal companies in 2007 and 2008—$87,900—than any other Democratic senator save Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, and the most of all 12 Democrats on the EPW Committee. Over his career, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, Baucus has received nearly $1.2 million from the energy and natural resources sector, and nearly $1.3 million from the agribusiness sector, an industry Baucus recently said could be negatively impacted by climate change legislation.
These industries make up a substantial percentage of Montana's economy. In 2008, the industries that would appear to be most affected by climate change legislation—including mining, agriculture and forestry—together accounted for roughly 30 percent of Montana's $35.9 billion gross domestic product, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.
"We trust that the senator's integrity will withstand corporate polluters trying to influence votes via campaign contributions," says Brad Hash of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign.
Other observers say it's too late, and that the climate change bill serves as another example of Baucus' deceptive political formula.
"This is how Max Baucus plays a critical role in the manufacturing of conventional wisdom, a conventional wisdom that justifies selling out," argues political columnist David Sirota. "He's not saying he's against health care reform. He's not saying he's against a serious climate change policy. He's only saying that everybody else is, which then means that he has to vote to water down major pieces of legislation...And I think that typically this is done by Max Baucus to pay back an industry, or set of industries."
Moreover, according to the Sunlight Foundation, 12 of Baucus' former staffers, including four former chiefs of staff, work as lobbyists for organizations with an explicit interest in climate legislation.
"These 12 lobbyists represent a large cross-section of industries, from airlines to railroads and oil producers to solar energy companies," writes the Sunlight Foundation's Paul Blumenthal. "The diversity of organizations also brings a diversity in positions on the underlying climate bill. Many of the organizations represented by former staffers of Baucus are generally supportive of a climate bill, but are seeking certain provisions to be included or not removed during the committee process. Others are engaged in outward opposition."
The Baucus compromise largely mirrors the climate change bill passed by the House in June, which is why President Obama plans to announce at the international climate meetings in Copenhagen beginning Dec. 7 that the United States intends to cut emissions "in the range of" 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, the administration indicated last week.
But there's one aspect of the Senate EPW bill that is more aggressive than the House bill. The EPW bill gives the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act, as allowed by a 2007 Supreme Court opinion. Baucus says he wants to add language pre-empting such action, disappointing groups like the Sierra Club that call regulation under the Clean Air Act critically important.
Unfortunately for progressives, disappointment in Baucus is nothing new.
"I think [climate change] and health care for Max Baucus is one and the same thing," says Sirota. "He runs in the same crowd. He runs in the corporate crowd. He runs in a crowd of lobbyists. That is his crowd. Those are his former staffers, those are his friends, and they don't want this bill. What they rely on Max Baucus to do—what Max Baucus' specialty is—is not just casting a vote against this, but creating a conventional wisdom that says the only way to pass anything is to destroy it.
"When the legislative train is moving," Sirota continues, "when the public really wants something, Max Baucus is called in as a special agent to make sure that what's put on that train ends up not being much of anything."