Montana’s Sen. Steve Daines lands rare committee appointments, political clout

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines will do something no senator has done in 75 years: serve on both the Senate Finance and Appropriations committees, a move expected to give Montana unusual clout and gird Daines for the 2020 elections.

The assignment gives Montana a seat at the table on the committee responsible for prescription drug prices, Medicaid, Medicare, taxes and trade. It also puts Daines on two of the Senate’s most powerful “juice committees,” which boost a lawmaker’s ability to leverage campaign funds.

By being on the two committees, Daines will have a first vote on every federal dollar raised and spent.

“Those are arguably two of the most consequential committees in the Senate, and he’s on both of them,” said Robert Saldin, University of Montana political science professor who also provides political analysis for Montana Public Radio. “He has oversight over taxing and spending.”

Finance and Appropriations are also known as control committees because what they do impacts almost all other congressional actions.

“I think the number one way it helps is it raises his fundraising profile, which will help deter challengers from entering the race” said David Parker, Montana State University political science associate professor.

Montana’s Democratic Sen. Jon Tester had a similar campaign fundraising advantage as a member of the Senate Banking Committee. Donors from the securities and investment industries contributed $1.6 million to Tester from 2013 through 2018, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Daines has been on the Senate Appropriations Committee with Tester since taking office in 2015. Serving on both Appropriations and Senate Finance required a waiver from Senate GOP conference rules, according to D.C. news outlet Roll Call. Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., received the same waiver.

“I will continue fighting for balanced budgets, responsible government spending, less taxes, active management of our public lands and resources, and upholding our responsibility to Montana’s tribes,” Daines said in a press release Jan. 3. “I look forward to working on these four committees to put forward real solutions that help Montana families.”

The priorities in Senate Finance will be set by committee chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. A Nov. 29 Senate floor speech singled out rising prescription drug and health care costs as two areas the committee will focus on this year.

“For some people on fixed incomes, sky-high drug prices are eating up every spare penny they can scrape together just to fill their prescriptions,” Grassley said. “It’s time we talk turkey with our friends in Big Pharma.”

Per capita spending in prescription drugs has doubled in the past 20 years, according to the Peterson-Kaiser Health System Tracker. A quarter of the people taking prescription drugs say they struggle to pay for their medicine.

Whatever action the committee takes on prescription drug pricing is sure to tread lightly on regulations, Grassley assured, but preventing unfair business practices, protecting whistleblowers and creating more transparency in pricing will be part of the equation.

Price fixing allegations against drug companies have boiled over in recent years as the cost of life-saving drugs from EpiPens to insulin have skyrocketed. Several state attorneys general have sued generic drug makers for manipulating prices.

“A priority for Sen. Daines on the Finance Committee will be to protect Medicare benefits for our seniors. Some other priorities Sen. Daines will be working on is ensuring affordable prescription drug prices and working to improve TANF (Temporary Aid for Needy Families),” said Katie Schoettler, a Daines spokesperson. “He will also continue his efforts to safeguard Medicaid for those most in need.”

Democrats have called for direct government intervention. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has proposed that the Federal Health and Human Services Department manufacture generic drugs whenever corporate producers of generic drugs fail to lower prices.

President Donald Trump has shown support for lowering prescription drug prices covered by Medicaid and predicted that a tremendous reduction in drug prices is in the future.

International trade action will be crucial for the Finance Committee in 2019, as well, with Senate approval required for the U.S., Mexico, Canada Agreement, or USMCA. The agreement, which replaces the North American Free Trade Agreement, has policy changes key to Montana’s agriculture and the timber industries.

More importantly for Montana, the United States is in need of a new trade agreement with Japan, a major buyer of Montana grain. Without new trade terms the U.S. will be at a tariff disadvantage as other countries reap the benefits of the multinational Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal the U.S. started but then backed out of.

Since the start of the year, Japan has been offering better trade terms to major U.S. agriculture competitors who stuck with TPP, namely Canada and Australia, while the U.S goods remained priced higher under the pre-TPP tariff terms.

“Advancing the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement to help provide more certainty will be particularly important this Congress as well as addressing China’s unfair trade practices,” Schoettler said. “Sen. Daines is also supportive of re-engaging with TPP, especially as U.S. farmers and ranchers will face a competitive disadvantage in important markets like Japan as the revised TPP without the U.S. continues to advance.”

Taxes will be the third leg of the Finance Committee platform. Republican leaders plan to make permanent several parts of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that are currently only temporary. Among those issues are the doubling of the child tax credit to $2,000 and marginal tax rate cuts for individuals and families.

Daines retains his spot on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and also Energy and Natural Resources. He is no longer on Senate Agriculture.