Baucus Watch, Part IV

Lobbyists in white hats

As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Senator Max Baucus holds the keys to health-care reform; any health-care legislation must pass through his committee. So what he says or doesn’t say is important to those following the twists and turns of the congressional effort to fix our health-care system. This is the fourth of an occasional series of posts on the senator’s pronouncements and how the media has covered them. The entire series is archived here.

ABC Nightly News’s The Money Trail segment, which has intermittently appeared during and after the campaign, captured some remarkable remarks from Sen. Max Baucus at one of this week’s inaugural parties. Brian Ross took his camera crew to a shindig thrown by some lobbyists and corporations, which, as he explained it, wanted to “impress Montana Democratic Senator Max Baucus, who is the powerful chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which writes the tax laws. Baucus says lobbyists just want the best for America.” On camera, Baucus offered this opinion of them: “They really care about our country,” he said. Was this a modern day riff on the infamous Charlie Wilson quote?

A brief digression into history: Wilson was president of General Motors during World War II and Secretary of Defense in the Eisenhower Administration. During his confirmation hearings in 1953, when asked, given his investments in the company, whether he could make a decision that would hurt GM, Wilson replied, “I cannot conceive of one, because for years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors and vice versa.” Shortly afterward, his words took on a translation all their own, and Wilson was forever linked to the misquotation “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country.”

It’s fair to ask whether what’s good for the lobbyists is good for the country, especially when it comes to health care. That, dear readers, is exactly what the senator from Montana must decide as health reform makes its way to his committee. After all, history shows that even before Wilson’s time, special interests and their lobbyists stymied major reform that would have brought national health insurance to America. Of course, we won’t know Baucus’s decision until the back room deals are in hand, the committee mark-up is over, and the long legal document shows up on the desks of health care reformers and others who have (and don’t have) the public interest in mind. Then it may be clear what role lobbyists, their campaign contributions, and their inaugural parties had in the process—and, ultimately, the outcome.

One thing that is transparent, though, is the amount of campaign dollars the senator received from health care special interests this past year for his easy reelection race. According to, the website of the Center for Responsive Politics, Baucus raised about $11.6 million, mostly from PAC and individual contributions. Insurance companies, health professionals, HMOs, hospitals, and nursing homes gave Baucus almost $1.8 million. Throw in another $1 million from lawyers, law firms, and those who work for lobbying firms, some of whom may represent health care interests, and you can see the senator’s dilemma.

We hope ABC continues to report on the money connections—such reportage has been woefully absent. Maybe The Money Trail will even serve up more illuminating quotes like the one from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who invited a bunch of lobbyists to his own inaugural reception. Reid says that he will do lots of business with them, and President Obama will too. “People should understand that lobbyists, per se, are someone’s father, mother, son, daughter. They work for a living,” he said. Just plain folk indeed.

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.