Sen. Max Baucus’ Retirement Signals Another Indian Ally Lost

By Rob Capriccioso, Indian Country Today Media Network

If a politician’s commitment to Indian country can be measured by the amount of money he’s directed to it, then retiring Sen. Max Baucus (D-Montana) has been among the most committed in recent memory.

According to the senator’s website, at least copy0 billion has been designated for Native American programs and tribes during his tenure as chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance, a title he has held since 2001. But his contributions aren’t limited to cash. Baucus supported urban Indian health and anti-diabetes measures, and worked to get increased resources for the Indian Health Service. Ken Salazar, the recently departed Secretary of the Interior, has said Baucus was a key player in passing the Crow Water Settlement Act of 2010, which resolved a 30-plus-year dispute. He also played a role in other tribal water settlements, and in getting the Indian Health Care Improvement Act passed in 2010.

Now that Baucus and a handful of other Indian-friendly senators have announced their retirements, many Indians are thinking of ways to educate a new batch of Congressional leaders—a never-ending job, but one that takes on increased importance when those with institutionalized tribal knowledge and experience move on. “We’ve lost Senator Inouye, and Senators Akaka, Lautenberg, and Johnson announced their retirements. Now my old boss, Senator Baucus, is moving back to Bozeman [Montana],” says Tom Rogers, a lobbyist with Carlyle Consulting who worked as a congressional staffer for Baucus for 25 years before forming his own lobbying firm. “We are losing and have lost some mighty oak trees.”

Baucus, 71, announced on April 23 that he would leave Congress at the completion of his current term, which ends in December 2014. The news stunned many in Washington, including some members on his staff. He has been building a ranch in Bozeman, and he recently got married (for the third time), so many have speculated that he is ready to settle down and relax.

Baucus explained his decision in an op-ed published by The Great Falls Tribune. “It whispered to me among the elk resting in a meadow east of the Bridger Mountains,” he wrote. “I heard it as thousands of snow geese flew over the Rocky Mountain Front. The pull came up from my soul like the ducks that rose in clouds from the winter wheat fields of Teton County at dusk.”

He also said he is happier than he’s ever been, while vowing to focus on meaningful tax reform during his remaining months in the Senate—something that seems feasible, since leading Republicans and Democrats, as well President Barack Obama, all have said they want to make progress in that area.

Baucus told Indian Country Today Media Network he has been honored to work on behalf of tribes. “Serving the people of Montana, including our reservation communities, has been the greatest honor of my life,” he said. “You don’t become the longest-serving Senator in Montana history without a lot of help from a lot of people—and I owe much of my success to the tremendous support from folks in Indian country. Montana is so lucky to enjoy the rich culture and history our tribes bring to the state.

“I have worked hard over the years to represent all Montanans and giving a voice to Indian country is very important to me. Together we’ve accomplished a lot, from the Indian Health Care Improvement Act to the Cobell settlement to funding for infrastructure and education. But we still have a lot of work ahead of us to support good-paying jobs in Indian country. Over the next year and a half, I’ll be just as dedicated to working for our Montana reservation communities, including pushing my bill to fully fund water projects and making sure Indian country plays an important role in my Economic Development Summit.”

“My overall sense is that his retirement could give a shot in the arm to comprehensive tax code reform, including key tribal provisions,” says Paul Moorehead, an Indian affairs lawyer with Drinker Biddle who is a former Senate staffer. “His counterpart on the House side, Representative Camp, is term-limited… So what we have is two men who after 2014 will be gone from the helms of the House and Senate tax-writing committees, and a re-elected president who is interested in tax reform as a way to strengthen the economy.”

Indian country, especially Montana tribes, have learned that Baucus is largely respectful of tribal sovereign nations, and he aided Native America through financial programs he created and controlled as the Finance Committee chair, such as the Tribal Economic Development (TED) Bond program that launched in 2009 under the Obama administration’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The program has since been expanded by the Internal Revenue Service, and is believed to be aiding an increasing number of tribes by exempting their borrowing on many more projects than they were able to before the law passed. Using TED bonds, tribes can finance almost anything that state governments are able to finance through tax-exempt bonds.

Rogers was disappointed some Democrats said they are glad to see Baucus retire, because he is not progressive on issues like gun control. “They have to remember the state he comes from. And Indian issues don’t need to be politicized, so the fact that he could work with Republicans on our issues often benefitted Indian country.” On that point, Chris Stearns, an Indian affairs lawyer with Hobbs, Straus, Dean & Walker who was previously a House staffer adds, “Like past Indian country champions in the Senate from North and South Dakota, he showed that you don’t have to be a senator from a liberal or so-called progressive state to get things done for Native Americans. You just have to have courage, strong convictions, and the support of Indian people.”

There’s no doubt his departure will leave a hole for tribes in the Senate, says Stearns, but he adds that it is not as dire a picture as some worriers might paint. “Leaders always emerge, but more importantly, we need to remember that Indian country’s champions are already there,” Stearns says. “Leaders like Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, Jon Tester and Al Franken have already proven themselves.”

Sen. Tester, who will become the senior senator from Montana once Baucus departs, says he is sad to see his colleague and mentor go, but has vowed to continue his advocacy for Indian country. Andrea Helling, a spokeswoman for Tester, says Sen. Tester and his staff “will continue to work closely with Montana reservations on economic development projects and the quality of life issues that support economic development, like the permanent reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, the SAVE the Native Women Act, the HEARTH Act, and the Tribal Law and Order Act.”

Despite that promise, Stearns says Indian country needs to continue to foster its relationship with him and other members of Congress. “One of the key points to remember when you look back at the storied careers of Senators like Dan Inouye, Byron Dorgan, Tom Daschle or Max Baucus is that it is just as important for them to win elections so they could enjoy the lengthy careers that really paid off for Indian tribes and Indian people. Indian country will have no trouble rebounding, but Indian country can never afford to take its foot off the pedal when it comes to exercising the power of the Native vote, so we can keep our champions in office.”

Rogers agrees that Native Americans need to get increasingly involved with U.S. elections. “It’s critically important for Indian country to realize that its power emanates from voting,” he says.

Rogers is one of the few who sees a silver-lining in Baucus’s announcement, pointing out that he will soon be able to advocate for tribes from outside the Senate, whether through lobbying or a non-profit program.

Others are less sanguine. “Max has given decades of service and he deserves to spend time enjoying life instead of leading the life of a senator, which is hectic and stressful… so from Max’s perspective, this is a good thing,” says George Waters, President of George Waters Consulting Service. “However, from Montana’s perspective and the perspective of Montana’s tribes, and tribes across the country, this is definitely not a good thing. Max has tremendous power and has used it to benefit his constituents, including the tribes of his state… To lose someone with that power, seniority, staff and history will hurt, there is no other way to put it. However, the tribes are resilient and we’ve had great advocates from Montana in the past like Lee Metcalf, Mike Mansfield and Pat Williams. When they left the Congress, the void, at the time, seemed insurmountable, but they have been replaced by highly regarded members. Life will go on.”

Some are speculating that former Democratic Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer will run for the seat Baucus is vacating. The popular governor has said he strongly supports tribal sovereignty, and he has a record of supporting tribal bison and cultural issues. Still, Rogers would like to see more concrete tribal economic development and anti-poverty ideas emerge from Schweitzer if he does become a senatorial candidate.

But for now, the focus is on Baucus, and Rogers, who has known him since 1978, says he is happy for the retiring senator. “I consider him my friend, and he is very much at peace—that is a good thing to see and to want for a friend. I am smiling for what comes next for him.”