Old school for old boys

Farm Forum

While Max Baucus and Jon Tester are both Democrats, both U.S. senators and both Montana country boys, last month’s hurried vote to fund nearly $1 trillion of current federal spending shows just how different these Big Sky legislators really are.

Baucus, a ranch kid with two degrees from Stanford University, has spent nearly

50 years in state and federal politics. He is a six-term U.S senator, chairs its Appropriations Committee and is a senior member of the Ag Committee. He is up for reelection in 2014.

Politically, Baucus is more pragmatic than Democratic. He teamed with George W. Bush to pass the landmark Medicare prescription drug benefit and Barack Obama to pass the Affordable Care Act.

In early April, Baucus was profiled by both the New York Times and the Washington Post. The Times piece was tough. It tied the Baucus-led Finance Committee’s effort to rewrite the nation’s tax code to “at least 28 former aides” who now work “as tax lobbyists, representing blue-chip clients that include telecommunications businesses, oil companies, retailers and financial firms…”

And, noted the Times, “…many of those lobbyists have already saved their clients millions-in some cases, billions-of dollars after Mr. Baucus backed their requests to extend certain corporate tax perks… as part of the so-called fiscal cliff legislation in January” 2013.

For example, “Baucus aides who later became lobbyists helped financial firms save $11.2 billion in tax deferments…”

A current staffer explained the actions this way: “Every vote has to answer one question for him and that is: How is it impacting Montanans?”

OK, just how are $11.2 billion in tax deferments to global financial firms impacting Montana’s farmers, ranchers, business owners and citizens?

And more to the point, as chairman of the Senate’s most powerful committee, Baucus is now in charge of rewriting the entire federal tax code. That means he’s working for every American, not just every Montanan.

Every Montanan includes his Senate colleague, Jon Tester, a music teacher by training and farmer by birth. Tester’s old school flat-top haircut is a billboard for who he is: the Senate’s only farmer who totes home-butchered beef to Washington, D.C. in his carry-on luggage.

On March 20, Tester took a rhetorical butcher knife to the Senate floor to carve up the rules that had stopped debate on two riders to the must-pass, $1trillion dollar Continuing Resolution.

The riders were odious. One repealed a successful, three-year campaign to give poultry farmers more power in negotiating production contracts; the other allowed genetically modified crops to continue to be grown despite any court ruling that required them stopped.

Tester asked Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV for time to debate the two riders. Reid, under the dual pressures to keep the wheels of government turning and for Congress to leave town for a two-week Easter holiday, turned him down.

During consideration of the CR, however, Tester publicly objected to the riders and the process that delivered them. The “ultimate loser” to this in-the-dark action Congress was ready to take, he explained, “will be our family farmers going about their business and feeding America the right way.”

The Senate approved the CR, and both riders, by a 76 to 23 count. Tester was the only Democrat to vote against it; his fellow Montanan, Baucus, voted for it. (It became law within a week.)

The vote represents more than just bad law being made by a bad process.

It’s a scream for more transparent government because, regardless of which corporate mule carried these riders to completion, neither could have withstood an hour of sunshine had they been offered, discussed and voted on through the same open process that you and I conduct our church meetings.

Congress should be no different. It needs more open lawmaking and fewer lobbyists, more bottom-up debate and less top-down dismissiveness, more well-lit transparency and less in-the-dark committee work.

In short, it needs more old school democracy and less old boy cronyism.

Columnist Alan Guebert is the owner of Ag Comm in Delavan, Ill. Guebert’s Farm and Food File is published weekly in more than 70 newspapers in North America. Contact him at

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