Lame-Duck Baucus Is an Extra Long Shot for Tax Overhaul

Posted April 23, 2013 at 5:53pm

When Montana’s Max Baucus first became chairman of the Senate Finance Committee a dozen years ago, a colleague of mine on the tax beat worked this  telling observation into her profile: His remarks in public were so halting, she wrote, that he often appeared as if “still reflecting on what he should say even as the words left his mouth.”

That phrase sprung to mind when word got out Tuesday morning that Baucus was retiring — the biggest 180 in a four-decade career characterized by such sharp and just-when-you-least-expected-them turnabouts. Two hours later, he still wasn’t quite ready to state clearly what everyone already knew.

“I’ve got people I’ve got to talk to first,” Baucus said as moved past the crush of reporters that waited for him to finish a relatively routine committee meeting. “I’m going to talk to my staff right now. And phone calls I’ve got to make.”

The Baucus record has been marked more than anything by a willingness to ignore the wishes of fellow Democrats and the entreaties of his leadership, especially when they conflicted with his perceived political realities back in Montana. But, for lawmakers and lobbyists alike, there is another related aspect of his style almost as important to be aware of — and sometimes even more annoying.

Before coming to decisions of consequence, the senator can appear so paralyzed by indecision that his K Street critics wonder whether what they’re really watching is something closer to indolence. These detractors say the fabled Baucus balancing act sometimes goes on so long that it becomes the de facto rationale for doing nothing.

That grumbling gained volume after Baucus confirmed his plans. It was especially notable from some lobbyists who had been peddling the notion (echoed in this space Monday) that a Finance chairman freed from campaign considerations would be willing and able to engineer a bipartisan tax code overhaul that most fellow Democrats could embrace.

Their theory was based on assumptions that Baucus would win a seventh and presumably final term in 2014, his party would stay in the majority so he could remain chairman, and Barack Obama would chose to emulate Ronald Reagan by making tax simplification the signature issue of his final two years as president.

But now that Baucus has given himself only 20 more months, few think he’ll be much interested in upgrading his metabolism for such an intense and fast-tracked fight.

It is true, as my colleague David M. Drucker noted on his Goppers blog Monday,  that overhauling the IRS code might be easier now that both the tax-writing committee chairmen are lame ducks. And, presumably, it might be less swayed than before by the legions of former aides and others lobbying them on every conceivable provision. Baucus has spent some time mulling tax rewrite options with Michigan Rep. Dave Camp, but under GOP term limits the latter’s time with the House Ways and Means gavel is up at the end of 2014.

But taking on a tax code rewrite would also compel Baucus  to replace his well-honed practice of deliberative line straddling with a wholehearted embrace of the policies most Democrats want to run on in the midterm. On one level, this might be easier than it appears, because he’s shown himself as willing as any Democrat in recent years to limit tax breaks for big corporations and richer individuals.

But the larger truth is that many of his colleagues don’t trust him to do right by them. This assumes that, if he’s given much negotiating leeway, his old habits will eventually kick in and he’ll strike a deal that meets the GOP on the other side of halfway. So before taking a stab at a grand legislative finale, he’d have to spend considerable energy securing the blessing of Majority Leader Harry Reid, who will have 20 years’ worth of reasons to wave him off.

In his own retirement announcement, Baucus gave a crystal clear hint that he has only pro forma appetite for such a heavy lift.

“I’m not turning out to pasture because there is important work left to do, and I intend to spend the year and a half getting it done,” he declared. But then he enumerated five parochial priorities that would command his attention along with any of “work on simplifying and improving the tax code.”

He did not assert that enacting a rewrite would be the driver of his last year in public life. Instead, he cited legislation to protect the North Fork watershed in the Flathead Valley, a bill preserving the front range of the Rocky Mountains, provisions to help job growth for Montana in any new farm or highway bills — and assuring the success of his final economic development summit in Butte this fall.

It’s an every-three-years event that usually draws a roster of major corporate executives with a wave of the Finance gavel. With his sluggish start toward the exits, by September Baucus may find he’s spending his remaining morsels of clout on getting his guests to make good on their commitments.