Longtime Democratic Sen. Max Baucus of Montana announced this week that he would not seek re-election next year, ending four decades in Congress and leaving as chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee.
NPR's Robert Siegel spoke with Baucus Thursday about his recent vote against expanded gun background checks, his role in negotiations over President Obama's health care legislation, efforts to remake tax policy, and the legions of his former staffers now populating lobbying shops.
Pressed by Siegel about his vote last week against expanded gun background checks — given that he knew he would not have to worry about re-election — Baucus characterized himself as "just a hired hand" carrying out the wishes of his Montana constituents. He also said while he'd been considering retirement for months, he didn't decide for sure not to run for a seventh Senate term until this Monday evening, five days after the gun vote.
"I believe very, very strongly that when you serve, you serve the entire state," said Baucus, who has an A+ rating from the NRA.
"I agree with the majority of people in Montana," he said, when pressed by Siegel about what motivated the vote. Polls have shown a wide majority of Americans, including from many conservative states, support expanded background checks. We have not found a nonpartisan poll specifically of Montana voters.
Baucus was one of four Senate Democrats from conservative states who voted against the background check proposal. Montana Sen. Jon Tester, Baucus' Democratic colleague, who has an NRA rating of A-, voted in favor of the proposal.
In 1996, Baucus endorsed major gun control legislation, then eked out a win in his next election by just 5 percentage points — his closest Senate race. He won five years ago with 73 percent of the vote. But his current approval rating sits at 45 percent in a state Obama lost last year by 13-plus points.
Health Care Negotiations
Baucus has been criticized by fellow Democrats for his role in extending bipartisan negotiations over President Obama's health care proposal long after it was clear no Republicans would vote for the measure.
Critics say the longer the fruitless efforts continued, the more opportunity it gave opponents of the bill to marshal forces and attack the measure. Supporters say he was key to getting the 60 votes in the Senate it needed to pass.
Siegel questioned whether Baucus, who as Finance Committee chairman was instrumental in writing the health care bill, squandered Obama's political capital in 2009 and into 2010 pursuing Republican support for it.
"You can't operate by hindsight," he said. "It was very clear to me that a bipartisan bill would have much stronger support and be much better for the country."
The Revolving Door?
Siegel asked Baucus about reports suggesting that Washington lobbying firms are chockablock with his former staffers, noting one report that says 28 of his former aides have lobbied on tax issues during the Obama administration — more than any other office.
Asked Siegel: "Is your office the epitome of the revolving door?"
Baucus said the number of former staffers on K Street is simply a reflection of the fact that he's been in Washington for four decades and hires "intelligent, very talented people."
In a follow-up to the interview, Baucus' office said that since 2000, the senator has employed more than 1,000 staffers, and that fewer than 4 percent of them have gone on to become lobbyists.
Others have gone on to careers in public service, including nearly 20 have served in the current administration, from the IRS to the White House, where Jim Messina served as Obama's deputy chief of staff.
Overhauling The Tax Code
Baucus told Siegel that everything has to be on the table in negotiations to simplify the federal tax code — including deductions for home mortgage interest, charitable contributions and state and federal tax payments.
Baucus also said that low tax rates applied to "carried interest," a tax code characterization of profits made by hedge fund managers and others in private and venture capital, are a loophole that should be repealed.
He also sees compromise in what will happen with revenue generated if the tax base is broadened. "Some of the revenue will go to a rate reduction and some of it to a debt reduction. That would probably be a good solution."
Back to Montana
Will Baucus himself take up a new career in lobbying?
"Oh, I'm moving home," he told Siegel, calling the atmosphere in Washington "partisan" and "coarse."
He said: "I'm just hankering to get home. My blood, my roots, my soul is in the state of Montana."
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And I'm Robert Siegel.
This week, saying I don't want to die here with my boots on, Senator Max Baucus of Montana announced that he won't run for re-election next year. The Montana Democrat won election to the Senate for the first time in 1978. He has been chairman of the Senate Finance Committee since 2007, but he was also a chairman for a couple of years before that when the Democrats held the majority.
Senator Baucus issued a statement saying that not seeking re-election will allow him to devote more energy to overhauling the tax code. And he joins us now from Capitol Hill. Welcome to the program, Senator Baucus.
SENATOR MAX BAUCUS: Well, thank you, Robert.
SIEGEL: You said you can spend more energy on tax reform without running. You won five years ago with 73 percent of the vote. Is it really difficult for a senior committee chairman to lead a serious legislative effort and run in the same year?
BAUCUS: Well, frankly, campaigns have changed so much in each cycle. They're much, much more expensive and become more coarse, more negative. The Senate over the years, as well as the House, Washington, D.C., have become more partisan, and that spills over into campaigns. But bottom line, you can't take anything for granted. Believe me, I don't.
SIEGEL: So it would have taken up a lot of your time, you're saying?
BAUCUS: Yeah. There's no question.
SIEGEL: When did you exactly decide not to seek re-election?
BAUCUS: It's a very personal decision. My wife and I have been talking about this virtually daily for - be about three months. But the final decision was made about 5:30, Monday evening. That's when it was finally made.
SIEGEL: That's about a week after you cast a vote that was one of several that have infuriated many, many other Democrats. You were one of four Democratic senators who voted to kill the expansion of background checks for gun buyers. Most pundits attributed those Democratic votes to political necessity back home although your Democratic colleague from Montana, Senator Tester, voted the other way. Since you're not seeking re-election, looking back on that, was that a vote of conscience on your part? Do you believe there should not be an expansion of background checks (unintelligible)?
BAUCUS: Well, I'm a Democrat and I am very strongly a Democrat, but I'm a Montana Democrat. And Montana Democrats elect me. But, you know, all Montanans elect me, and I believe very, very strongly that when you serve, you serve the entire state. So that was the basis for my actions. And I have no - there's no question in my mind that I was acting according to the wishes of the majority of people in Montana.
SIEGEL: Were you acting and keeping with your own actual opinion of the question of background checks as well?
BAUCUS: I think I should represent my state. They're the ones who elect me.
SIEGEL: Even in conflict.
BAUCUS: They're my employers. They're the - I'm just a hired hand. I'm the employee.
SIEGEL: I'm not hearing you say that you agree with a majority of those Montanans. I'm getting the impression from your answer that you...
BAUCUS: I do, I do.
SIEGEL: You do agree with them, though.
BAUCUS: No, no. I agree.
SIEGEL: Did you assume after that vote that Michael Bloomberg's group would back a primary candidate against you and make it a very rough primary?
BAUCUS: You know, I don't - you know, to be honesty, that doesn't even enter my cocktails. I don't think about all that stuff. It's irrelevant to me. You do what you think is right. And for me, what's right is the votes I took because that's what the people of Montana want.
SIEGEL: On health care, which was in the jurisdiction of the Senate Finance Committee, your committee, one columnist summed up your role, a couple of years ago, not approvingly, this way. He said, Obama took all of his political capital and let Max Baucus squander it. That was a reference to your attempt over many months to win some Republican support for the bill. In retrospect, was that a waste of time? And is it a cost of regret to you that you never (unintelligible)?
BAUCUS: Well, you know, let's get to the heart of the matter here. The heart of the matter is that I worked for two years prior to passage of that bill because I believe so strongly that it was necessary to get health care cost under better control to reform the health insurance industry and to help more people get health insurance. And man, oh, man, I worked on that because I believed in it. I believed in it very, very strongly. And I also believe that legislation that has broader support is more likely to survive.
So I worked hard to get some Republican support for it and with the president's approval. My, gosh, I have met at the White House a couple of times with the president with Republicans who are trying to get it passed, and after a while, Republicans started dropping off. And once I realized Republicans are dropping off for political reasons, then I pushed ahead to get the bill passed. And as you know, it passed the Senate it and it passed the House without one single Republican vote.
BAUCUS: But man, I worked really hard on it, made sure it passed because I believe in it.
SIEGEL: In hindsight, if you'd known there would be no bipartisan support, could it all have happened six, eight months sooner than it did?
BAUCUS: You can't operate by hindsight. You never look in the rearview mirror. You do what you think is best at the time. And at the time, it's very clear to me that a bipartisan bill would have much stronger support. It'd be much better for the country.
SIEGEL: On tax reform, you've spoken of working toward a simplify tax code. Tax expenditures are what a lot of ordinary taxpayers think of as deductions. Should they be casualties of a simplified reform tax system?
BAUCUS: Well, they should examine it very closely. Some of them are very difficult, but I think it's very important to put them all on the table that includes home mortgage interest deduction, includes state and local tax deduction, includes charitable deduction. There are a lot there that have been deeply embedded in the tax code and serve a lot of very important social purposes.
But over the years, the code has become so complex. It is, I think, very important to simplify it and help to raise some revenue. But we have to find a way to work together. It's very important to me to work together with members of both sides of the aisle.
SIEGEL: LegiStorm, an online database, according to The New York Times, found that - and I'm quoting virtually here - at least 28 aides who have worked for you have lobbied on tax issues during the Obama administration. And they say that's more than any other current member of Congress can claim. Is your office the epitome of the revolving door that critics of Washington are always complaining about?
BAUCUS: Well, you know, I will have been in Congress almost 40 years. And over 40 years, it's logical that I have hired lots of people. It's only logical when people leave, they seek careers that make sense to them. But I must say this, you know, they do what they do and I do what I do. That is I hold myself to an extremely high standard, and if somebody wants to go lobby, that's his or her business. But it has no influence over what I do.
BAUCUS: What I do is what I think is what good tax policy should be.
SIEGEL: Senator Baucus, you've said you've decided that there is life after the Senate, and you're going to pursue that, I guess, starting January 2015. Will your life after the Senate be back in Montana? Are you moving back to your home state? Or will you stay here in Washington, D.C.?
BAUCUS: Oh, I'm moving home. That's one of the main reasons for making this decision. It's a job which I love, greatest privilege in the world to be representing the state of Montana in the United States Senate. It doesn't get any better than that. But - well, I've been here for years, including House service, and I'm just hankering to get home. My blood, my roots, my soul is in the state of Montana.
SIEGEL: Senator Baucus, thank you very much for talking with us about your decision not to seek re-election to the U.S. Senate after all these years.
BAUCUS: Well, thank you very much.
SIEGEL: That's Max Baucus, a Democratic senator of Montana and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.