Monday, November 28, 2011

Reflection on the Retirement of Barney Frank

Most liberals, and a lot of people who aren't liberals, will experience a pang of regret hearing that Barney Frank won't be running for reelection. There aren't many familiar Washington figures that people across the political spectrum want to hear from, even if they expect to disagree with what he has to say. When Frank opens his mouth, everyone knows they're about to hear the voice of unvarnished liberalism from a guy who knows a thing or two about public policy. Among politicians who can't do anything but recite talking points, that was often a breath of fresh air.

That's not to say that Frank has ever been especially doctrinaire--he was always too good a legislator to let perfection become the enemy of the good. Nor is it to say that he's always been right (think about his embarrassing assurances respecting the solvency of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac). What distinguishes Frank from the other liberal war horses of his congressional generation (which includes Nancy Pelosi, Chris Dodd, Henry Waxman et al.) is the fact that what he said was unusually trenchant and frequently very funny.

That mattered because most of Frank's congressional career coincided with the presidencies of Reagan and the Bushes. That meant that his was usually a voice in the ideological wilderness. In an era when liberals were usually fighting rearguard actions, no one held his ground better than Barney Frank.

But what did Frank achieve in the way of governance? He and his generation of liberals didn't really get a chance to show off their chops as legislators until 2009-10. There's no denying that their output was quantitatively impressive. Jonathan Bernstein makes the case for its quality (my emphasis):
"To a large extent Frank typifies the story of the historic 111th Congress, which was one of the most productive in decades. That’s the story of veteran Democratic legislators who developed their skills before the 1994 Republican landslide finally having the chance to get big things done once Dems took control of Congress and the White House. They proved themselves very much very much up to the task. Not just Frank and Chris Dodd, but also Henry Waxman, David Price, Rosa DeLauro, Tom Harkin, Max Baucus, and many others. Remember that the stimulus in 2009 and the Affordable Care Act and Dodd-Frank in 2010 were all omnibus bills, containing lots of smaller pieces of legislation, and therefore the product of lots of Members of Congress who had been working on specific problems for years."
Bernstein commends the 111th Congress's output (and Frank's generation of liberal legislators) mostly because he thinks that it's generally sound public policy. Maybe you agree, maybe you don't, but let's put those questions aside. Legislating isn't only about making public policy. It's also about legitimizing public policy by enacting it in such a way that even the people who originally opposed it recognize that it represents an authoritative political decision. Part of "getting things done" is doing them in such a way that they won't soon be undone.

Does anyone believe that 111th Congress, and Frank's generation of congressional liberals who led it, were "very much up to the task" of legitimizing its output? If they were why would we now be heading into an election in which Republicans are pledging to undo most of its work, and Democrats are doing their best to deflect the voters' attention from what they've done to the crazy things that the Republicans might do? I can’t think of another case where anything quite like this happened before.  Maybe that's a result of people like Frank ramming "omnibus bills" through Congress that nobody, including the congressmen who voted for them, understand well enough to have the foggiest idea of whether they'll achieve their stated objectives.

Frank was a hero to liberals because he said what was on our minds better than we could say it ourselves. But you can't say he, and his generation of liberal legislators, have been particularly good at persuading people to be more liberal.

1 comment:

Mean Voter said...

It will be interesting to watch whether any remnants of the liberal legislation of the last congress will remain after the next election. Barney Frank is no idiot. I think he doesn't want to be in Congress when the undoings occur.