Whenever Canadian exports get gored in the U.S., Senator Max Baucus has a hand in it
By Trevor Cole
Originally published 2008
It was one of those fine winter days in mountain country; the sky was clear, the sunshine glanced off the snowcaps just so. But in Fernie, a mining town in British Columbia's Elk River valley, it hardly mattered, because hell was about to be paid. Max Baucus was coming to town.
This was in February of 2005. The senior U.S. senator from Montana was venturing north to discuss the matter of a possible coal mine in B.C.'s Crowsnest coal field. The Lodgepole mine, as it was called, was not really a mine or even a project—just a proposal by a Canadian penny stock company, Cline Mining Corp. But in Montana it was portrayed as a threat: The spot Cline had staked out, not far from Fernie, lay next to a creek that led to a fork of the pristine Flathead River, which flows across the border and through Montana's prized Glacier National Park. It posed a potential environmental danger to what a local conservation official still describes as “the last, best place” in America. Any threat to Montana was manna for Max Baucus, an avowed protector of his state's interests, and he wanted to build support for his effort to kill this possibility. So one of his staff suggested crossing the border to press some Fernie flesh.
Any other American senator on such a mission might have been received cordially. But Baucus was a figure of dark renown in Fernie, just as he was in many other towns in British Columbia and Alberta. He had a long history of picking fights with Canada over cross-border issues around softwood lumber, beef, wheat—essentially anything that involved trade and his state's economic interests. He had a penchant for inflammatory language and for calling in the higher authority of the U.S. State Department whenever things didn't go Montana's way. The press release made public by his office indicated he had no intention of coming quietly; it was titled, “Baucus Takes Mining Fight to Fernie B.C. Friday.” He specialized, you might say, in the international incident.
When the member of the provincial legislature for the Fernie area, Bill Bennett, heard Baucus was coming, he thought he'd organize a welcoming party. Bennett is himself a man of notable temper (two years later, in 2007, he would lose his cabinet position over a profanity-laced e-mail he fired off to a constituent), and a visit from Max Baucus was just the kind of provocation that made his blood run hot. He knew other folks in the area felt as he did, so he got on the phone and rounded up more than a hundred of them—people he remembers now as “a bunch of loggers and miners and ranchers and trappers and guide outfitters and hunters and anglers,” proud Canadians every one. Baucus's staff had arranged to use a meeting room in a seniors' home across from city hall, where they assumed they'd be meeting with sympathetic local environmentalists. And as Baucus's entourage drove around the corner, Bennett and his greeting party were waiting.
“Man, we got tattooed,” remembers a former member of Baucus's staff. “They were vicious. They had demonstrations. It was ugly.”
Video footage taken by a freelance cameraman for the local CTV affiliate shows Bennett confronting Baucus in the middle of the street, surrounded by supporters: “I'd like to tell you, sir, that you're actually not welcome here.” And inside the meeting hall, among the locals, the tall and grey-haired Baucus, fit for a man in his 60s, can be seen standing in shirt sleeves near an upright piano, waiting awkwardly as Bennett harangues him. “You have chosen throughout your career to kick the hell out of Canada, and that's why we're here today,” hectors Bennett. “You've got to stop doing it. You’ve got to stop kicking the crap out of us in the newspapers down in Montana.” And the Fernie folk cheer. What they can't know is that in 2008, as you'll hear from the man himself in a rare interview, Max Baucus will look back on the whole ruckus with pride.
Trashing NAFTA has achieved a sudden vogue among the Democratic candidates on the U.S. presidential campaign trail, but compared to Baucus, they're mere dabblers. The chronology of Baucus's offences against Canada reaches back decades and extends right to the present day. In Allan Gotlieb's published diaries, which cover his stint as Canadian ambassador to Washington, 1981 to 1989, Baucus turns up more than a dozen times, and the references usually reflect Gotlieb's frustration at having to deal with him. The reference from June 27, 1985, is typical: “Breakfast this morning with Max Baucus was particularly futile—the man from Montana is the scourge of Canada.”
Baucus has fought Canadian trade interests on more fronts and on more occasions than there's space to mention, but the theme is always the same: Canada trades unfairly. It subsidizes its lumber. It subsidizes its wheat and its pork. In 1988, Baucus teamed up with another senator to craft an amendment to the bill that put the Free Trade Agreement into law. It was a formula that, had it been adopted whole, would have allowed the U.S. to file actions against Canadian companies it considered subsidized. In 1994, in a battle over wheat imports, Baucus called the Canadian Wheat Board a “secretive nationalistic cabal.” He has repeatedly fought for high tariffs on Canadian lumber, claiming that it has cost tens of thousands of American jobs. The U.S. administration responded to Baucus's urgings in 2002 by imposing a 27% duty on Canadian lumber imports. A year later, Baucus introduced a bill with Idaho Senator Larry Craig that would have increased the barrier to at least 45%. In 2004, Baucus was on the subject again. “Lights in mills across Montana and America go out,” he said, “when Canada bends the rules on softwood lumber.” And later that year, he introduced a bill that would have distributed to the U.S. industry the more than $3 billion in duties collected from Canadian lumber imports. (Like many of Baucus's bills, it never reached a vote.) By the spring of 2007, Canada and the U.S. had signed a peace pact on softwood lumber. But, as chairman of the powerful Senate finance committee, Baucus was claiming Canadians were up to their usual shenanigans. “Canada can stick by our deal on lumber,” he said, “or expect to be taken to the woodshed.”
In truth, the right and wrong of the softwood lumber dispute—whether the Canadian industry was subsidized, whether it was dumping—has been a matter of perpetual legal debate. Roughly put, Canada tended to lose its arguments in front of the WTO and win the majority of them in front of the NAFTA mediation panels. But for Baucus, who long ago earned the nickname “Raucous Baucus” on Capitol Hill, there was no grey area. For him, there was no political gain in equanimity.
Allan Gotlieb, reached in Toronto, explains it this way: “The closer a senator's state is to Canada, the more likely he is to be involved in Canada-bashing, because they're responding to constituent interests.” In fact, Baucus has elevated constituent pandering to an art, and because he is well positioned in Washington, his Canada-bashing frequently generates government action, for which Canadian industry often pays dearly.
It's happening again. Campaigning for a sixth Senate term (which would be a record in Montana), Baucus has returned to one of his favourite issues: mining in the Canadian headwaters of the Flathead. He is vowing to fight Canada to the finish. So when it was announced in February that Baucus would be holding a public meeting on the issue in Kalispell, not far from Glacier National Park, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to see the man in action.
With fewer than a million people stretched across some 145,000 square miles, Montana is one of the most sparsely populated states. Its cities are really towns—Billings, the largest, has a population of around 95,000—and the nearest U.S. metropolitan centre is at least 800 kilometres from the capital, Helena. As one local told me, “We're at the end of a dead-end road.”
For the longest time, it was copper that fed most Montanans—there was a stretch when the Anaconda Copper Mining Co. owned almost all the newspapers and supplied most of the jobs; even the state's constitution was penned by ranching and mining interests. But in 1972 Montana rewrote its constitution—“threw off the copper collar,” they said—and the economy diversified. By the 1980s, lumber was king. Many a family in the state proudly posted a bright green sign on its lawn: “This Family Supported by Timber Dollars.”
Max Baucus was born into a Montana ranching family in 1941. He has said that his ranching background gives him roots in the soil, and that makes him pragmatic. In Montana, for the past few decades, “pragmatic” for a politician has meant keeping the lumber families happy.
As a Democrat in a state that nearly always votes Republican for president, Baucus has had to walk a careful line. He often sides with Republicans on finance issues—in 2001, he was a major supporter of President Bush's tax cuts, which angered Democrats. He positions himself as pro-free trade, which makes him no friends among lumber workers. “The timber industry has always struggled with Max,” says one of his former senior staffers. For Baucus, the solution was to parade a handy villain in front of the crowd like a scary circus cat, and make him flash his fangs—“poking the tiger” as the staffer puts it. “He'd poke the tiger with Canada on softwood lumber and other issues, and it emboldened him with constituents he had always had trouble with.” The environment was also not generally a Baucus strong suit, given his support for the lumber industry (Montana has never passed a wilderness protection bill because it would hurt the timber mills), not to mention the many coal mines and coal-bed methane operations in Montana. “He has huge trouble with the enviros,” says the former staffer. But “he'd whack around the Canadians on their mining issues, and the enviros loved it.”
Montana is divided into have and have-not regions: The rural eastern half is poverty-stricken even as the western half, with its mountains and rivers, swells with tourists and development. Kalispell sits in the middle of that beauty-driven prosperity. One resident, extolling the mountains that surround the town, told me, “It's like getting a big hug from a pretty woman.”
On Thursday, Feb. 21, the small auditorium of the Flathead Valley Community College in Kalispell begins to fill up with “enviros,” with hunters and fishers, with employees from Glacier National Park, hoping to protect that beauty from Canadian pollution. Many of them seem to know one another; many of them wear plaid. More chairs are brought in to accommodate the numbers until there are roughly 300 folks waiting to hear Max—they think of him as Max—tell them what's what.
They know going in that Baucus has fought coal development in the southeast corner of British Columbia for more than 30 years. In 1977, he began fighting against a proposed mine at Cabin Creek by pushing the necessary political buttons to get an environmental impact assessment performed. That prompted intervention by the International Joint Commission, which finally led, in 1988, to the project being abandoned. The Fernie dust-up in 2005 was a highlight of the ensuing decades. But, since the beginning of 2007, the senator from Montana has been very busy indeed. In March, he wrote a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice seeking another International Joint Commission hearing regarding the Cline Mining development. A month later, Rice committed to working with Montana to stop the Cline mine. By August, BP Canada had announced that it was exploring the possibility of a $3-billion coal-bed methane project in the same region. In September, Baucus met with the heads of BP America and BP Canada, then promised “a massive and unpleasant fight from Montana that will end badly” if the companies proceeded with their coal-bed methane plans. An exchange with Canada's ambassador to the U.S., Michael Wilson, resulted in Baucus proclaiming that Canadians “need to understand that no matter how they present their proposal to mine or drill upstream from Glacier Park, the answer is always going to be no.”
At 3 o'clock, the room is full and the panel facing the crowd includes leaders of the environmental movement and three politicians—Governor Brian Schweitzer, junior Senator Jon Tester (a “dirt farmer” who lost three fingers in the meat grinder of his family's butcher shop) and Max, the MC of the event.
“This is great,” he begins. “A joint effort. You're a real team here....It's teamwork that makes things happen. That's something I believe very, very strongly.” There is nothing smooth about Max Baucus, except perhaps for his mantle of coiffed grey hair. He smiles awkwardly, his aging face shows strain, and he is, frankly, a terrible public speaker. He constructs sentences as if jamming groups of railcars together, with words getting crunched and garbled at each connection point. Some of this, apparently, has to do with self-confidence. “He's always striving to be accepted,” says his former senior staffer. “In the major spotlight, he's still uncomfortable with himself at times, which is an odd thing for somebody who's been in public life their entire adult life.”
But there are few better, or fiercer, politicians. He is a voracious fundraiser, and by one estimate will have raised, by November, close to $15 million for his campaign, an unheard-of figure for Montana. By temperament, he is relentless in everything he does; in 2003, for example, he fell in the midst of a 50-mile marathon and sustained a head injury that later required surgery to relieve a subdural hematoma, yet finished the run. As for how he campaigns, a local newspaperman put it this way: “He doesn't just want to beat you; he wants to ruin your career.” Twice, Republican opponents of Baucus have seen character-destroying images from their pasts spring into view. In the case of Larry Williams, running against Baucus in 1978, it was a picture showing him in long hair and love beads. In 2002, a TV ad supporting Baucus revealed a 1980s video of barrel-chested Mike Taylor, who'd once owned a successful salon and beauty-products business, wearing flashy clothes and applying lotion to the face of a man. To the good people of Montana, it looked like Mike Taylor might be gay. He lost by 30%.
But Baucus's chief skill is connecting with constituents. When he first campaigned for office in the 1970s, he walked diagonally across the state, from a town called Gardiner to a dot on the map named Yaak, where you can have a drink at the Dirty Shame Saloon. He did it again when running for his fourth Senate term in 1996, this time walking west to east 1,300 kilometres, out on the road for four, five or six hours every day. “He'd get all sorts of crap,” remembers another former staffer. “They'd come with hot dogs and Snickers bars, because people would think he must be hungry walking along the roadway.” Throughout his 30 years of service, whenever he has returned from Washington for a week-long visit, he has famously spent at least one day working the shift of a regular Montanan, be it a butcher, highway construction crewman, dental office worker or trucker. Often the job is chosen for its relevance to a political issue—when Max was promoting an economic stimulus package, he worked as a sporting goods store clerk to remind Montanans to go out and buy a new tent and a gun—and there are always cameras around.
Just two days before heading to Kalispell, I spoke to John Van Dongen, B.C.'s Minister of State for Intergovernmental Relations, and asked him whether there was some imminent announcement or decision regarding the Cline Mining and BP Canada proposals that would prompt Baucus to hold a public event. “There is absolutely nothing imminent on either project,” insisted Van Dongen. But in the college auditorium, Max hits the crowd with a bombshell. “Just several hours ago I got a call from the head of British Petroleum, Bob Malone. He said to me that in conjunction with the British Columbia provincial government, they've made a final decision. They're not going to develop coal-bed methane in the North Fork of the Flathead.” After the crowd's cheers and whoops subside, Baucus underlines his tough-guy stance. He reminds them of his victory in the '80s, when he stopped the Cabin Creek development. He explains that this latest triumph has sprung partly from a meeting he had with BP's Malone the previous September in Baucus's office: “I made it very clear to him: Ain't no way that this is gonna happen, period. There could be no coal-bed methane development across the border.” (Moreover, Baucus made sure this meeting was videotaped, so that footage of him sternly shaking his head at a quiet and respectful Malone could be distributed to Montana news outlets.)
He then relates his meeting with Ambassador Wilson. “I had him come to my office and I said—and I don't remember myself speaking this strongly to anybody in my life—I made it clear to him. This is not gonna happen. Whether it's coal-bed methane, or whether it's coal.'m gonna do everything I truly, possibly can to prevent that from happening. I just said that to him. This is non-negotiable.”
Though you have to admire Baucus's ability, however stilted, to craft his own heroic narrative, it seems striking that it would be a U.S. senator who would announce a land-use decision of a Canadian province. And in the days that follow, it emerges that Baucus has engaged in wishful speaking. The truth is that the B.C. government has declined, for the time being, to give BP tenure for the portion of its proposed project affecting the North Fork of the Flathead, but that BP will continue to do environmental studies, with an eye to future development. The word from BP spokesperson Jessica Whiteside is, “We are still very interested in the potential of the Canadian Flathead.”
As for why the Flathead portion of BP's project was excluded, hard answers are elusive. The public relations representatives at BP America and BP Canada used identical phrasing to declare Bob Malone and his Canadian counterpart, Randy McLeod, “not available” to speak on this story. And on the phone from Victoria, B.C.'s Minister of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources, Richard Neufeld, is coy about the reasons for the decision. “Those are negotiations that go on between industry and government,” he says vaguely, calling it a “collective” decision between B.C. and BP.
But was Baucus and his relentless campaign a contributing factor? “No, no, no,” Neufeld insists. Describing the senator as a “vicious opponent” and “endlessly wrong,” he says, “We actually don't make decisions on what Mr. Baucus tells us to do.”
At the Canadian embassy, Roy Norton, the Minister for Congressional, Public and Intergovernmental Relations, reaches for a memo he received from a colleague on Thursday, Feb. 21, at 5:16 p.m. EST—just minutes, in other words, after Baucus began speaking in Kalispell. He begins reading aloud. “The province recognizes the environmental sensitivity of the Flathead Valley, and has not included this area in the tenure referral for BP's project.” Then he looks up, bemused. “God knows what that means.”
It means, one would suppose, that Baucus's pressure tactics had some effect. And it points to the enduring difficulty Canadian industry has in dealing with Washington politicians.
On Capitol Hill, where the architecture projects a monumental permanence, the longer politicians last, the more powerful they get. Senators populate the committees that hold sway over federal legislation, and it's the longest-serving senator of the majority party on each committee—not the most intelligent or able—who gets to be chair and set the agenda. It's an accepted fact in Washington that senators from the least-populated U.S. states hold office longer than others. Thus, Max Baucus, for 30 years the senator for one of the least populous states in the union, gets to be chairman of the most powerful committee of them all, the Senate finance committee. Which means he can hold hearings on and bring attention to just about any trade or economic issue he wants, with the support of a huge committee staff. And because Baucus always puts Montana first, he will use his position to thwart larger Canadian interests. Inexpensive Canadian lumber, for instance, may appeal to large numbers of American consumers. It may even be headed to Louisiana to help the victims of Katrina. But “if it hurts the mill in Darby,” says one of his former staffers, “Max ain't for it.”
It's also important to remember that Montana, with lots of land and resources but few people, is a producer state, not a consumer state. And thanks to the influence of such lobby groups as the U.S. Coalition for Fair Lumber Imports, Washington is decidedly a producer town. Canadian industry, be it lumber, beef, wheat, mining or what have you, is always at a disadvantage when trying to make its case in Washington, because it is almost always restricted to arguing the consumer's case.
John Allan, president of the Council of Forest Industries, has plenty of experience with butting his head against the problem. “What the U.S. lumber lobby does is manipulate congressional representatives and senators in support of their cause by saying to these different politicians, ‘Gosh, our sawmills are under threat in some little community in some state because of unfair competition from Canada through subsidized lumber.' And they believe this stuff. It's a mantra.” Allan and other representatives of Canadian lumber work with the Canadian embassy to gain access to the decision makers. Once, the Canadian lumber lobby even resorted to delivering more than 500 pizzas to offices across Capitol Hill, each box bearing an information sheet making Canada's case in the lumber dispute. But in Allan's view, nothing much has worked. “How we crack that nut in Washington remains an unsolved mystery.”
But there are those who think it's no mystery at all. I spoke to half a dozen lobbyists and trade lawyers in Washington who have knowledge of the Canadian dilemma, and heard repeatedly that Canadian industry needs to do much more than it's doing to press its case. Lumber is the oft-cited example. Canadian interests, by and large, saw it as a legal battle and spent hundreds of millions of dollars fighting the Americans in court. But their cause was lost on the political pitch. One lobbyist, decrying what he views as corporate Canada's penchant for letting the Canadian embassy do all its work, recalled that he would speak to politicians and their staff on the Hill and “they would say they were constantly hearing from the American coalition, but almost never hearing from a Canadian company.”
Don Ferguson, a former consultant to American Consumers for Affordable Homes (ACAH), which was the only effective Canadian lumber ally in Washington, told me Canadians just don't understand U.S. politics or the importance of U.S. coalitions. “Canada has never understood that you don't build support for an issue of this type from Canada itself. In the U.S., all politics is local, and you need to have organizations that share your concerns in the U.S. in order to be successful.”
For a brief time, the ACAH was a powerful voice on the Hill. It had signatories that included 140 members of Congress and companies representing 95% of the domestic lumber consumption in the U.S. “No one, prior to ACAH, was sitting down with members of the Senate or the key committees in the House and talking to them to get them to understand the other point of view, other than Max Baucus's point of view,” says Ferguson. But though the ACAH was the best friend Canada had, just one Canadian group, the Free Trade Lumber Council, actively assisted its efforts with funding. Since the U.S. and Canadian governments made their surprise lumber settlement in 2006—which many in the Canadian lumber industry opposed—it has been totally inactive. And though Baucus was quick to applaud the deal two years ago, he's already thumping his drum. In a January, 2008, letter to President Bush, he cited “new provincial-level subsidies applied in violation of Canada's obligations under the Agreement,” and urged the government to force Canada to comply with its commitments.
What to do? I put the question to a leading Washington trade lawyer. He spelled it out very simply. “Your lobbying campaign, no matter whether it's gun control or outer space exploration, or Canadian lumber or making it rain, is basically three things. One, you actually have to make a substantive case. Even if it's bullshit, you have to come up with good arguments. Two, you have to get people's constituents interested. You can't just sit here and do it. You have to get constituents to come to Washington, to write their congressman.” That means 10 to 30 calls and e-mails to each and every consumer organization or company that you want to write a letter to Congressman X or Senator Y in support of your position. And finally, “Three is money. You do fundraisers. It's a fact.”
He doesn't mean raising funds to publicize your case. He means raising funds for politicians. But because only U.S. citizens can contribute to American political efforts, it would have to be done through the vehicle of a U.S. coalition similar to the ACAH. Bottom line, it would mean organizing $1,000-a-plate dinners for Baucus to add to his campaign kitty, or “if he keeps being obstreperous, for his opponents.”
But he shrugs, admitting, “Baucus is probably a lost cause.”
Canadians complain about Baucus, aloud and in print, but rarely (if ever) do they seek him out. In Washington, you'll find him in the Hart Senate Office Building, the most severe of the Senate's marble office complexes. His personal office, past a warren of meeting rooms where his staff meet with a stream of delegations, is an immense space. Its walls, coloured a rusty red, soar to a ceiling more than seven metres high. As Baucus, in shirt sleeves, sits for an interview, several young aides rim the perimeter, and another is dialled in from Montana by speakerphone.
Twenty minutes have been granted, and with no time for easing in I read to Baucus the quote from Allan Gotlieb's diary, the one that describes him as the scourge of Canada, and ask for his reaction. He looks perplexed. “Now,” he says, “who's Allan Gotlieb?” The former Canadian ambassador to Washington, I say.
“Okay, okay, all right, okay.”
I tell him that in Canada it's believed that he is out to get us. What's his response? For the next few minutes, he talks about the importance of working with people, but also of standing up for Montana, “in cases where I think Montanans have been taken advantage of or discriminated against.” He talks about working hard to get a softwood lumber agreement, and to address climate change. And, somehow, this thread ends with him talking about hitchhiking around the world as a college senior and finding himself in the Congo, where, he says, “the seed for public service was planted.”
Needing a plausible link back to the topic at hand, I seize on travel. Has he ever been to Canada? He recalls one or two places he visited on fact-finding trips, and offers, “I went up to Fernie a while ago.”
You got some people riled up, I say.
“Oh, yeah.” Max nods at the memory. His goal, he says, was to try to work something out. But some provincial politician—he means Bill Bennett—“just gave me the dickens. Just lit into me....Just making me look like the Devil.” But when it was all over, Max says, he felt proud of himself. Apparently, a Mountie, in red uniform, came up to him. “When I was walking out, he says, ‘Senator, I want to congratulate you. I'm not very proud of the way our people handled themselves, but I am really proud of the way you handled yourself. That kind of vindicated and justified what I was trying to do. My goal was to listen and try to reasonably explain, not get into an argument, nor to give them a hard time.”
But you got a sense, I say, of the anger that you create up there?
“I create?” says Max, his eyes widening. Baucus is for the most part affable in conversation, but when he takes umbrage, he gets what his staff calls “big eyes.” He says, “I got a sense of the anger that a lot of people have toward some Americans. And this guy, this one fellow, he really fanned the flames.”
But there's a perception, I say, that you use Canada as a whipping boy when you are running for office.
“No I don't. No way. No way.” He shakes his head and shifts in his chair. “That's not my MO. I don't deal that way. I will call something as I see it, but I'm not a demagogue, not somebody who is going to take advantage of a situation or fan flames myself. That's just not my style. Sometimes the press build things up, as you well know. But that's not my style.”
But you have used incendiary language at times.
You're going to take us to the woodshed—that kind of thing.
“I don't remember saying it. It could be, I don't remember it. That's not the kind of thing I would customarily say.”
Later, as we discuss the B.C. coal developments, Baucus recalls meeting with Ambassador Michael Wilson. “With all due respect to the ambassador,” says Max, “I think I explained a few facts to him about B.C. law, about Canadian federal law.” It seems Max straightened Wilson out on the differences between a coal mine and coal-bed methane developments, and when environmental impact assessments are required. “I made him realize, ‘Hey, this guy is taking it serious, this guy from Montana.' So I think that got his attention.”
It was in the midst of questioning Baucus on whether BP or the B.C. government had expected him to be the one to make a Canadian land-use decision public that his staff said time was up. Baucus wanted me to understand that it was a land-use decision affecting Montanans. “That's why I announced it.”
Now, of course, we know that the fight over the B.C. developments isn't finished. Informed that BP is still interested in the potential of the Canadian Flathead, a spokesman for Baucus told reporters, “There's no way Max will let them backtrack now.” Even the lumber issue is rising again, like the sun. In publicizing that January letter to the president, Baucus implored the administration to “fight tooth and nail to get Canada to live up to its end of the bargain.” The truest words Max Baucus ever spoke may have been something he said to the happy crowd in Kalispell, about fighting the good fight for Montana.
“In my life,” he said, “it's never over until it's over. And even then it's not over.”
By Trevor Cole