Even Barney Frank Thinks Congress Is Too Partisan These Days

In announcing his retirement, the 30-year lawmaker offered a few lessons on how politics has changed -- and how we got where we are today

Barney Frank old photo - AP Photo:Elise Amendola - banner.jpg

Barney Frank is pugnacious, irascible, and an extremely sharp-tongued partisan warrior who has served as touchstone and poster boy for conservatives to illustrate everything they think is wrong with liberals.

On the floor of the House he could parry with the best of them and was always quick with an acerbic quip.

Those of us who interviewed him know he was not exactly a warm and fuzzy kind of guy and did not suffer fools -- "get to the point" or "what is your question" is something we heard pretty frequently from him.

He told a constituent during the health-care debate that arguing with her would be like trying to have a conversation "with a dining-room table."

Recently he called Newt Gingrich, a longtime nemesis, a "lobbyist and liar."

But in his announcement Monday that he will be leaving Congress at the end of 2012 after 32 years, Frank said he thinks our politics is getting too adversarial.

Even for Barney Frank, politics has become too partisan.

"People object to cooperation in principle because they do not see the need for it ... You have the most active people on both sides of the spectrum convinced that their view is the majority view."

In a 30-minute news conference held at the city hall in his hometown of Newton, Mass., Frank not only announced his decision not to seek reelection but also bemoaned the loss of civility in our politics and the extremism that has captured it, blaming the right, the left, and the voters.

"The activists in both primaries, people on the left and people on the right, live in parallel universes," Frank said during the news conference. "The left is on MSNBC and on the blogs, the right is on Fox and on talk radio. What happens is that people know different facts ... These are echo chambers. People hear agreement with themselves."

But, as one might expect with Frank, there was a bit more scorn heaped on Republicans. "The Republican Party today in the House is dominated ... it consists half of people who think like Michelle Bachmann and half of people who are afraid of losing a primary to people who think like Michelle Bachmann."

Bachmann serves on the House Financial Services Committee, which Frank chaired from 2007-2010, during a time of tremendous financial upheaval in this country. He helped oversee the bailout of financial institutions during the George W. Bush administration and had a significant hand in crafting the legislation to tighten regulation of the financial services industry known as the Dodd-Frank bill, also named for former Democratic senator Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), who chaired the Senate Finance Committee.

Off camera, Frank could be a deft negotiator who worked well with Republicans to craft a great deal of bipartisan legislation and who reveled in being able to use the political system and House rules to get things done.

In his news conference, Frank made reference to his years chairing the Financial Services Committee as some of the hardest of his life, and he mostly blamed redistricting for his decision not to run again. Frank, who will be 72 next year, admitted that his age was also a factor and said that he really wasn't up for the rigors of campaigning in an almost totally new district or for the fundraising that would be necessary.

Frank raised roughly $4 million in 2010 but said on Monday, "I don't like raising money," something that is essential to running a campaign for Congress today.

He wistfully acknowledged, "I will miss this job," but on the plus side, he said, the best thing about not running for reelection is that "I don't even have to pretend to be nice to people I don't like."

Of course those who knew him weren't aware that he was trying all that hard.

In 1987, he became the first sitting member of Congress to voluntarily reveal that he was gay and two years later became enmeshed in a scandal involving the use of his house by a former aide and male prostitute, for which he was reprimanded by the House.

Subsequently, he became the leading legislator in Congress on gay-rights issues. Frank said he wants to do a combination of writing, teaching, and lecturing. You can also bet that executives from MSNBC and CNN are already on the phone trying to hire him as a commentator when he leaves office.

Frank said he doesn't intend to retire from advocacy but thinks, because of the hyper-partisan environment, "My ability to be an advocate will be as great outside as inside [of Congress].

In a foreword to former Treasury secretary Henry Paulson's book On the Brink, Frank wrote, "Partisanship is a legitimate concept that has been discredited by the excesses of too many of its practitioners."

On Monday, Frank directly blamed Newt Gingrich for instigating the level of rancor and partisanship in the political system today. But he also said the voters bear some of the blame.

"The public cannot be totally absolved from this responsibility -- they picked us."

"What we need is for people to go and participate in primaries ... It begins with the electorate," said Frank, adding that voters need to stop rewarding excessive partisanship. "Until the electorate does that, it won't change."

Image credit: Elise Amendola/AP

Linda Killian is a Washington journalist and a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Her book The Swing Vote: The Untapped Power of Independents was published in January 2012 by St. Martin's Press.


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