Thanks for nothing, Max Baucus

There was a news item that created a minor stir yesterday (but infuriated me) when it was reported that Max Baucus had come out in favor of a single-payer system of health care, saying ” “My personal view is we’ve got to start looking at single-payer… I think we should have hearings … We’re getting there. It’s going to happen.”

For those who do not remember, Baucus was a Democratic senator from Montana and head of the powerful Finance Committee that was entrusted with creating and passing the Affordable Care Act that is now known as Obamacare. So why did his statement make me angry? Because he was the key person who, along with president Obama, made damn sure that not only was the single-payer option completely eliminated from any consideration, so also was the so-called public option that had been floated as providing an alternative to private health insurance plans, to compete with them in the insurance market. The health insurance industry had lobbied hard against the public option because they were afraid that it would be better and more efficient than the plans they offered (just like Medicare and Medicaid are more efficient) and that everyone would flock to them.

Back in 2010, I vented my anger at the way that Baucus and Obama and Democratic party leaders had caved to the health insurance lobby and effectively scuttled meaningful health care reform at a time when they had a golden opportunity to pass it. Here’s what I wrote then.

It was clear from the beginning that the Democratic strategy to make sure no meaningful reform was achieved was planned around the Senate. First Obama declared that the single-payer option was not even to be discussed. Then he said that what he wanted most of all was a ‘bipartisan’ bill. That gave him the excuse to jettison any attempts at a true reform since that would lose potential Republican support. This call for bipartisanship for its own sake was what convinced me that the fix was in and that Obama had completely sold out. After all, surely the goal should be a good bill that can gain the popular support of the people because then the elected representatives feel pressure to support it. When you say that bipartisanship is your main goal, you are signaling to the other party in the Kabuki play (the Republicans) that you want them to be as oppositional as possible so that you can be seen as reluctantly caving in. And both sides dutifully played their roles. It was truly sickening to see the way that any meaningful reform was compromised away in order to supposedly get even one Republican vote.

Obama then essentially gave the final say on health reform to the Senate Finance Committee to come up with the draft Senate version of the bill. Why, of all the committees that have jurisdiction on this issue, did he choose this one? Shouldn’t the Health and Human Services Committee be the natural body that leads on this issue? Yes, if one was thinking logically or wanted meaningful reform. But that was never the goal.

The Finance committee has certain advantages if your plan is to sell out your supporters and satisfy your real constituents, the health industry. For starters, its Democratic chairman Max Baucus is completely in the pockets of the health industry. So he could be depended upon to not even allow the single-payer option to be discussed in the public hearings and to oppose any attempt to introduce any form of public option. To stack the deck against the public interest even more, Baucus bypassed the entire committee (which had a Democratic majority and some members who had more progressive outlooks) and instead created a six-member group of three members of each party, knowing that the Republicans would veto any reasonable plan that harmed the health industry in any way. Thus the fix was in from the very beginning.

Of course, there had to be more Kabuki theater in order to fool the Democratic base that the party really was interested in meaningful reform. So along the way a public option was proposed and then withdrawn because it could not get any Republican support. Then the option to buy into Medicare for those between the ages of 55 to 64 was proposed and then withdrawn for the same reason. The reason for these maneuvers was to give the public some hope that some true reform was on the horizon so as to keep them involved and supportive, while all the while intending to take these prizes away at the end. It was Lucy with the football, and the public, like Charlie Brown, kept getting suckered over and over again.

I wrote even more two days later on how the the sell-out went down and what other analysts were also saying about it.

So that was Baucus then. Why was he so adamant against anything that might harm the insurance lobby? Because he had been bought and sold by that industry, as the Sunlight Foundation reported back in 2009.

The Baucus-headed Finance Committee has been singled out by advocates and news organizations as the toughest obstacle for the President’s health care priorities. Containing more moderate and conservative members may not be the only reason. The committee is packed with lawmakers who have close ties to the health care and insurance industries, receiving large campaign contributions as their former staffers turn around to lobby for the very interests whose issues — in this case health care — they previously worked on. Baucus, as chair, stands out in particular.

Lobbying disclosure filings for the first quarter of 2009 reveal that five of Baucus’ former staffers currently work for a total of twenty-seven different organizations that are either in the health care or insurance sector or have a noted interest in the outcome. The organizations represented include some of the top lobbying organizations in the health sector: Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Researchers of America (PhRMA), America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), Amgen, and GE Health Care.

In fact, I recall that he hired a lobbyist from the health insurance industry to be his chief staffer on the ACA hearings and she went back to the industry after the legislation was passed.

What happened to change your mind, Max? Did you suddenly seen the light and realize that a single-payer system is the best one?

It is possible, of course, that he had such a come-to-Jesus moment. But I think it far more likely that he knew this all along, as did Obama and the Democratic party leadership. But as long as they were getting contributions and perks from that industry, they did what they were told. Now Baucus is no longer being showered with gold, he may be trying to salvage his reputation from being someone long considered to epitomize the corruption of Washington politics, that politicians were bought and sold by various lobbies.

He may be gone from the halls of power and thus freer to speak his mind now but the corrupt system he cultivated and thrived on lives on.


  1. lanir says

    Ah. Another one after the cheap thrill of saying the right thing finally, long after it matters.

    I would care what he had to say about it if he were going to help lobby to fix his corruption-fueled screw-ups but as it sits this isn’t even a mea culpa. How can you respect a principled stand that’s only principled when it’s convenient and isn’t a stand at all?

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