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Montana: Big sky country or political puppeteer?

September 17, 2013, 5:03 PM UTC

Montana Senator Max Baucus.

On paper, Montanans account for about a quarter of a percent of the country’s economic output. Some farmers, some ranchers, a smattering of oil and gas wildcatters, a couple small cities and that’s about it, right?

In the last few days the state’s leaders have looked more like U.S. economic puppet masters.

The state’s junior Senator, Jon Tester, on Friday effectively killed Larry Summer’s candidacy to chair the Federal Reserve when he went public with his opposition. Tester, a moderate Democrat, sits on the Senate Banking Committee, where three liberals already had declared their opposition. His announcement meant President Obama would have to find an offsetting Republican vote on the panel just to get a Summers nomination to the Senate floor. It also signaled antipathy to the former Treasury Secretary had spread beyond the Democratic left-wing, which spent the summer raising hackles about the possibility Summers would get the job. With the writing block-printed on the wall, Summers on Sunday formally withdrew from consideration.

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Meanwhile, on Monday, the Montana Economic Development Summit kicked off a two-day run in Butte — the former mining boomtown, current population 34,200 — with a eye-popping parade of corporate titans listed as speakers: Boeing (BA) CEO Jim McNerney, ConocoPhillips (COP) CEO Ryan Lance, FedEx (FDX) CEO Fred Smith, Delta (DAL) CEO Richard Anderson, Facebook (FB) COO Sheryl Sandberg, Ford (F) CEO Alan Mulally, Google (GOOG) executive chairman Eric Schmidt, HP (HPQ) CEO Meg Whitman, Oracle (ORCL) president Safra Catz, and Tesla Motors (TSLA) CEO Elon Musk.

The list of sponsors is even longer, including Amgen, Disney, ExxonMobil, Johnson & Johnson, Lockheed Martin, Microsoft, Pepsi, UPS, and Wal-Mart. For that, Big Sky Country can thank Tester’s senior counterpart, Sen. Max Baucus. The six-term incumbent leads the Senate Finance Committee, with jurisdiction over the federal tax code. Baucus has been working all year to gin up support for a comprehensive tax reform push, and though prospects are dim, the threat (or promise) is evidently real enough for the top executives in attendance.

The event is the sixth of its kind since 2000, all spearheaded by Baucus to focus whatever corporate wattage he can muster on investing in his home state. The 2010 conclave drew GE CEO Jeff Immelt and Berkshire Hathaway (BRKA) CEO Warren Buffett for example. But for sheer numbers of C-suite heavies, this year’s is a high water mark.

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It may well stay that way. Baucus is retiring in 2014. Finishing a tax code overhaul in that window remains a long shot. The Senator faces stiff resistance from his own leader, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), while House Republicans are showing little inclination to force the issue in their chamber during the upcoming budget showdowns.

“For two days, the title Business Capitol of the World belongs to Butte America!” Baucus declared to the summit in his opening remarks. A pair of Senators willing to throw their weight around can make it feel that way — temporarily, anyway.