Max Baucus has plowed through a lot of legislation in his 36 years in the U.S. Senate, but perhaps no legislation more significant than that on agriculture and trade, observers say.
Baucus, who voted on his sixth farm bill last week, has produced a farm voting record that’s had significant impact on Montana’s agriculture economy. Not surprisingly, farm interest groups have nothing but praise for Baucus as he leaves office to become the next U.S. ambassador to China.
“No matter who was in power, Max was always looked to as a leader in agriculture. He was always a statesman
there,” said Bob Hanson, a White Sulphur Springs rancher and Montana Farm Bureau Federation president. “It was never about the politics of Ds and Rs with Max. It was about what’s good for agriculture.”
As Baucus leaves office, farmers are anxiously eyeing Senate support for the Transpacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade agreement that includes parts of the rapidly growing economy of the Asian Pacific. Hanson and others were hoping that Baucus would be around to get the bill passed. The deal, known as TPP, would normalize trade conditions for key Montana products, such as beef, with some of the United States’ historically best buyers, including Japan.
The longest-serving member of the Senate Finance Committee in U.S. history, Baucus has played a role in every trade deal for the past 30 years, including the Korean Free Trade Agreement enacted in 2012. South Korea is a top 5 foreign buyer of Montana products.
That agreement was set for approval without normalizing trade terms for American pork and beef. U.S. negotiators were willing to normalize trade terms on other products and deal with the beef and pork later, recalled Bill Donald, past president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. Baucus insisted the trade terms for beef be included in the agreement before he, as chairman of the Senate finance committee, would shuttle the agreement through the Senate.
In the past four years, Baucus played a role in passing the Permanent Normal Trade Relations agreement with Russia. U.S. exports to Russia totaled about $9 billion in 2012 when Congress approved normalization for the first time since the Cold War. U.S. exports to Russia are expected to double by 2017, with significant increases in beef and pork exports.
He also shuttled the Panama Free Trade Agreement through the Senate. The agreement opened the door for U.S. contractors to bid $15 billion in infrastructure projects in Panama and created access to Panama’s $20 billion services market.
The Senate also approved the Colombia Free Trade Agreement sponsored by Baucus. The trade deal is expected to boost U.S. exports to that nation $1 billion a year, with markets opening for U.S. wheat and lentils.
“I think his most important accomplishment was in the area of trade,” said David Parker, a political science professor at Montana State University. “He was in the forefront of all national trade agreements in the past 10 years.”
Hanson said the one trade issue that Baucus worked on without a breakthrough was eliminating the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. Baucus pushed to allow U.S. farm commodities and medical exports to Cuba. Lifting the embargo would have opened the door for rice and lentil sales to Cuba at a time when Montana lentil production led the nation.
In 2008, Baucus took eight farmers and ranchers to Cuba and sparked a $7.8 million sale of 15,000 tons of lentils. The sale was unusual because Montanans don’t grow the red lentils that Cuba typically buys.
On the farm subsidy front, Baucus repeatedly secured federal farm program terms that Montana farmers wanted, particularly for wheat, which nationally takes a back seat to corn, soybean, rice and cotton issues when it comes to farm bill discussions.
Lola Raska, of the Montana Grain Growers, said Baucus kept wheat interests at the front of farm bill discussions. Raska flew to Washington, D.C., to present Baucus with the 2013 Wheat Advocate Award, an honor he has won repeatedly as a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee.
“Max’s work on behalf of grain growers is bar none,” Raska said. “He has worked tirelessly to make U.S. farmers competitive across the globe and to protect our rights here at home.”
Both Raska and Hanson said it would be difficult to find another trade and farm policy advocate as effective as Baucus.