By Steven Pearlstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 9, 2010; 10:45 PM
Like it or hate it, one thing you can say about the tax deal that President Obama struck with Republicans is that it sure beats the one hammered out by Democratic leaders in Congress. That's because Democratic leaders never actually produced one that had a chance of being enacted.
For that, of course, Democratic leaders blame Republicans. They blame the Senate rules. They blame the president. They blame uncooperative colleagues. They blame everyone but themselves - not just for this, but for Congress's overall inability to tackle pressing problems.
So it should be no surprise that when the new Congress takes office next month, the lineup of Democratic leaders in both chambers will be pretty much the same. Why shake things up when everything is going so well?
For my money, there's no better example of the failure of the Democratic leadership than the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Max Baucus - and, in particular, his performance on the president's deficit-reduction commission.
It's a mystery that Max was appointed to the panel in the first place, given that he had led the fight against its creation. His beef was that by establishing a mechanism that required Congress to vote up or down on an austerity plan it couldn't amend, lawmakers were turned into mere bureaucrats. More to the point, it also threatened Max's power and prerogatives as Finance Committee chairman. So when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid chose Max for one of his three slots on the commission - bowing, as Reid always does, to Senate hierarchy and tradition - he had to know that Baucus would vote against any plan that might emerge.
Max did not disappoint. According to panel members and staff, Max had one of the commission's worst attendance records and contributed little to formal or informal discussions. In talks with the commission chairmen, he declined to say what he would need to see in any final report in order to vote for it.
Perhaps most telling was Max's contribution to the debate over what to do about looming shortfalls in Social Security. Never mind cutting benefits or increasing the retirement age. His solution was simple and painless: a crackdown on waste, fraud and abuse.
While Max's vote against the plan surprised nobody, even commission members were surprised by his ludicrous explanation that it was bad for rural America. Of particular concern to the senator from Montana were a proposed 15-cent increase in the gas tax, cuts in farm subsidies and the transfer of coal mine cleanup funds from Western strip-mine states to Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
While voters and politicians from rural states talk a good game about cutting the government down to size, it turns out they are the biggest beneficiaries of the federal tax-and-spend machine. The conservative Tax Foundation calculates that the most rural states receive somewhere between $1.50 and $2 in federal spending for every dollar of federal taxes they pay; urban states receive 60 cents to 90 cents. But never mind the facts - Max was not going to stand by while rural America was forced to share in budget-balancing sacrifice.
And what was Max's solution to the deficit problem? "We need to look for common-sense ways to help businesses create jobs and grow our economy." Alone among serious policymakers in Washington, he still thinks we can grow our way out of the deficit.
There are two possibilities. One is that Max is so parochial that he can't get behind anything that might jeopardize his popularity with the Montana Cattlemen's Association or the Billings Chamber of Commerce. In that case, he has no business chairing a committee that handles issues of national and international significance.
The more likely possibility is that he played the rural card simply as convenient political cover for his real motive, which was to prevent any challenge to his own authority. In that case, he has revealed himself as too petty to be a serious national leader.
It is telling that Max was the lone senator on the commission in voting against the deficit plan. Democrats Dick Durbin, the majority whip, and Kent Conrad, chairman of the Budget Committee, along with Republicans Tom Coburn, Mike Crapo and Judd Gregg, all managed to see beyond their personal objections to keep the process alive. So did John Spratt, the Democratic chairman of the House Budget Committee.
Max's defenders like to point out the splendid job he did last year shepherding the final health-reform bill through the Senate. My recollection is a bit different. Max wasted four crucial months that summer in seemingly endless discussions with two Republican members of his committee who never could say what they wanted, were never going to bring other votes and, in the end, could not withstand pressure from their caucus to vote yes. Significantly, it was during those four months of rope-a-dope that the bill's opponents were able to undermine public support enough that it took heroic efforts by the White House to push it to final Senate passage.
Max's other famous bout of dealmaking came in 2001, when George W. Bush was trying to push his famous tax cuts through the Republican Congress. The first member of the Senate Finance Committee to break from unified Democratic opposition was none other than its ranking member, Max Baucus. It was, therefore, a bit ironic Saturday when Max took the Senate floor last to lead the Democratic effort to prevent extension of the very same Bush tax cuts for upper-income households. That effort failed as well.
It is a fantasy to think that Democrats will be able to rebound from this year's election losses without coming up with a credible effort at deficit reduction and tax reform. And it is no less a fantasy to think that Max Baucus can hammer out such deals and get them through the Senate.