Conversations: Barney Frank

Congressman Barney Frank ’61-’62 has represented Massachusetts’ Fourth Congressional District for more than 30 years. Last fall, he announced that he would not be running for re-election. Frank spoke with FM last week about Massachusetts’ U.S. Senate race, where Congress is headed, and what’s at stake on Nov. 6.

Fifteen Minutes: You have endorsed Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Warren in the Massachusetts U.S. Senate race. Why is Warren the best fit to serve the people of Massachusetts? Do you think her campaign is approaching the problems facing the country correctly?

Barney Frank: Yes, absolutely. But to your first question, she’s an extraordinarily creative person with a great ability to work very hard. I worked very closely with her on setting up the [Consumer Financial Protection Bureau]. She’s a very pragmatic and creative person.

Secondly, she and Scott Brown differ on two major points about what we do with the deficit. She understands that you’re going to have to curtail military spending while you make other cuts. Brown wants to increase military spending, and technically she’s for getting some revenue from the wealthiest people. Brown follows the Romney approach which is you expand military spending, you don’t raise any increased revenue from the wealthy, and then you are forced to make very savage cuts in domestic programs. I also think she’s better on federal issues now.

But, most important—if he wins—you could have a Republican Senate. You get Mitch McConnell. If Brown wins, he may very well be the one that makes the Senate Republican, and you get an extremely right-wing group. You get Mitch McConnell, who said his main job was to harass Obama, make him unsuccessful. You can’t logically want to have Obama be president and have the Republicans control the Senate.

FM: What do you think is the biggest issue at stake on Nov. 6?

BF: It’s whether or not we are going to continue to have the capacity to deal with the quality of life in America. If you take the Republican approach of reducing the deficit only by cutting spending, and you spend more than the military even wants on the military and don’t raise any taxes on the rich, then you bring in a policy where you can’t do very much about the environment, about health care, the cost of education. You just lose your capacity to improve the quality of life by working together here at home.

FM: There’s a large battle looming right after election day as Congress attempts to address sequestration. What do you expect from the so-called lame duck session?

BF: It depends on what happens on election day. If either party is seen as a decisive winner, that could mean that we could get some resolution because the party that is seen as having won in November will be able to have a major say. If it’s seen as kind of a mixed bag, I don’t know what will happen. The problem is there are some very deep commitments on both sides, and I don’t know. I hope that we’ll see some compromise. Again, it will be easier to predict if President Obama is reelected, as I suspect he will be, and the Democrats pick up seats in the House and hold the Senate. If Romney were to win, which I don’t expect, and the Republicans were to hold the House and win the Senate, then I think you’re likely to see they’ll do it their way. Which means, wholly spending cuts solve the deficit.

FM: What do you see as the largest problem that the 113th Congress will face come January when they convene for the first time?

BF: It will be the double problem of how do you promote economic growth for the economy while dealing in the long term with deficit reduction. The Republicans tend to focus only on the deficit reduction. I think that causes harm to the economy. And—oddly—I think if Mitt Romney’s elected, I think he’ll be more interested in doing something with [the economic stimulus] because he won’t want to see a bad economy on his watch. But it’s that dual problem of short-term consumer policies and long-term deficit reduction.

FM: Do you have a prediction for the U.S. Senate race here?

BF: I’m not making predictions.

FM: But you did say before that you think President Obama will win re-election?

BF: Well, I take it back. I am optimistic about Elizabeth and about the president.

FM: This is the first election you have sat out in more than 30 years. Looking back over your time in Congress, what has changed the most since you arrived in Washington in 1981?

BF: The parties have gotten more separate. The Democrats have become more liberal. The Republicans are more uniformly conservative.... Things have changed. It was the takeover of the Republican Party by the Tea Party that was the most radical shift. This is the most extreme ideological faction controlling a major political party in American history. That’s the biggest change and it happened in just the last couple years.

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