Policy Associate, The Century Foundation
With the possibility of comprehensive tax reform finally on the horizon, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT)—the man in charge of overseeing any revision to the nation’s tax code—has found himself in the harsh glare of the national spotlight. Several media profiles in the past month have called into question the senator’s relationships with the corporate interest groups most likely to be affected by any tax changes emanating from his office. Indeed, a list of his top campaign donors, obtained from the nonpartisan Center on Responsive Politics, reads like a veritable “who’s who” of Big Business:
Equally troubling are the 28 former Baucus aides currently lobbying on tax issues on Capitol Hill—more than any other current member of Congress, according to a recent New York Times exposé. “K Street is literally littered with former Baucus staffers,” brags one executive who retained the services of Mary Burke Baker, a former staffer who helped pave the way for millions in corporate tax perks secured by the senator as part of last year’s fiscal cliff deal.
“Sean Neary, spokesman for Baucus, does an able job defending his boss, offering examples of times when ex-Baucus aides lobbied for tax changes that Baucus ultimately rejected,” writes Ezra Klein in an expert analysis of the ongoing controversy. “And Neary is right: Baucus doubtlessly ignores endless entreaties from former staffers and current contributors. But the point of hiring Baucus’s former aides isn’t that they can seamlessly insert any language they want into the final legislation. It’s that they have a direct line to Baucus, and to the people around Baucus, and that gives them a huge advantage.”
The fact is that human beings are more likely to find arguments convincing when they’re coming from friends rather than strangers or enemies. That’s the key to most of the lobbying in Washington. It’s not about leveraging bribes so much as it’s about leveraging relationships—and that makes it harder to stamp out.
In that sense, there’s nothing particularly unique about the Baucus affair. Money has always acted as a megaphone in Washington, giving outsized influence to those interests—corporate or otherwise—that can “pay to play.” But it does call into question whether Congress is even capable of the real tax reform that would truly benefit the public at the expense of their political patrons.