Center for Effective Lawmaking

Representative Barney Frank & Journalist Robert Kaiser Discuss Legislative Effectiveness

Representative Barney Frank and Journalist Robert Kaiser Discuss Legislative Effectiveness

For the next in our “Conversations with Effective Lawmakers” Series, we reach back into the vault of interviews conducted by the Center for Effective Lawmaking.  In this case, we present an interview conducted by CEL Co-Directors Alan Wiseman and Craig Volden in spring of 2019.

We had the pleasure of sitting down for a wide-ranging conversation with former member of Congress, Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), and with Washington Post reporter and award-winning author Robert Kaiser.  Kaiser’s book Act of Congress focuses on the passage of the Dodd-Frank financial reform act, following the 2008 financial crisis.  The two of them visited Vanderbilt University to participate in a roundtable discussion with then-Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos and Pulitzer-Prize winning author Jon Meacham, as part of Vanderbilt’s Chancellor’s Lecture Series.

Here are five quick quotes from the interview that link to the work of the Center:

  1. Frank on advice to new members: “Get on the best committee you can, from the standpoint of your interests, and look at the issues in that committee’s jurisdiction. Figure out which ones you care the most about and then look at the power alignment in the committee, and try to figure out how you can trade your support for other people’s priorities to get support for yours to be included in the committee’s product.”  Such a succinct and powerful piece of advice aligns so well with many of the lessons highlighted in the CEL New Member Guide.
  1. Frank on policy expertise: “You have to have pretty good expertise … if you go in to negotiate, and you don’t know the subject, you don’t know what you’re giving away and what’s important … The expertise comes first.” For an assessment of the degree to which members today engage in the specialization needed to build up expertise, see our recent work on foxes and hedgehogs in Congress.
  1. Frank and Kaiser on bipartisanship: “It may be coming back now, but one of the [major problems] is this sharp drop from the bipartisanship under Clinton and Bush. … When Obama came in, then it just sharply came to an end. … You know the story of the dinner at The Capital Grille on the night of Obama’s inauguration … where the House Republican leadership agreed we’re going to block everything he proposes.” Both interviewees noted the importance of rebuilding bipartisanship, something we’ve found important to lawmaking effectiveness across recent decades.
  1. Frank on the important role of staff: “John Boehner to his credit recognized [the immense influence of staff]. At one point he burst out in a meeting with bank lobbyists ‘and don’t let some little punk staffer push you around,’ whereupon I had printed up 1,000 buttons that said ‘little punk staffer.’ They were very popular. I still see them every so often.”  Reforms to increase staff pay were featured favorably in these discussions, in line with cultivating and retaining experienced staff for effective lawmaking.
  1. Kaiser on traits of effective lawmakers: “How many people have you met like Barney? Not very many … intelligence, patience … stick-to-it-iveness. All rare qualities in members of Congress. And it really makes a difference.”  These traits align closely to the Habits of Highly Effective Lawmakers arising from our scholarship.

In addition to these insights, Frank and Kaiser were very forthcoming about topics ranging from the corrupting influence of money in politics; to Frank coming out as gay; to the lawmaking style of Bernie Sanders, the leadership of Nancy Pelosi, and the personality traits of Donald Trump; and to reforms that would help Congress better meet its lawmaking responsibilities.  

We hope viewers enjoy watching the Conversation as much as we enjoyed hosting it.

 – Craig Volden and Alan Wiseman

Transcript as follows:

Alan Wiseman (00:00:01):

Well, good morning. So we have a series of questions. Some are addressed to both of you explicitly, and some of you will, some of them will be addressed one or the other. But when we … starting off, I guess one of the first questions we both had, which is to both of you is: Broadly speaking, what do you see as the value of Congress as an institution, especially in contemporary times? How well do you think it’s serving its purpose and what do you think could be done to make Congress more effective?

Barney Frank (00:00:27):

Well, I’ll start. There’s one goal that it’s always had and they continue to have, and that is to intervene between citizens and the bureaucracy. I don’t use bureaucracy as a bad word. I think America is very well served by the people who are at the federal level in particular, but there is a tendency to undervalue localism, and particularly … in fact, the much maligned earmark was a basic intervention by Congress on behalf of their constituents when they were facing an overly-rigid bureaucracy. And I think if there were no Congress, you would have a lot more arbitrary activity and less political input into some of the decisions that affect people. I think it’s the constituency service piece is a very important one. The next thing, of course, that it does more fundamentally, and that’s the one where it’s broken down some, is to set national policy, particularly domestically and in particular the allocation of national resources. And it still does that. And that has to be done. It cannot be done by the executive by itself. It’s a representative way of doing it. The problem is now – what, what would make it work better it’s not working now because of overly-rigid partisanship and that has led to 1, not enough happening and then 2, things happening too rigidly. So the biggest advantage we could have right now would be a diminution of partisanship and that has to be in the Republican party. The partisan issue, the partisan problem has to be addressed in partisan terms. One of the things that has troubled me, for a long time is, “Oh, a plague on both their houses,” which you still see today. “Oh, the politicians, this….” In fact, there is a very real difference in which the Republican party first became and continues to be much more partisan, much more unwilling to compromise. I look at the financial crisis when the Democrats worked closely with George W Bush and then a few weeks later Barack Obama is president and he gets zero cooperation from the Republicans. The best thing that can happen would be for non-Tea Party, non-Trump Republicans, who don’t appear to be a lot right now, to take their party back and to get back to a home that’s rigidly a very conservative Republican party.

Robert Kaiser (00:03:28):

Three points I think important to make. One is that the corruption of the modern Congress by money is a very real phenomenon. And I think, if you look at the new, it was the H.R. 1 that was his first act, it addresses really serious problems. The fact that members now have to devote so much of their workweek to raising money – and raising money means, don’t forget it, calling people you don’t know and asking them for money. It’s not a healthy transaction. And it dominates the lives of most members of the House who don’t have safe seats and most Senators all the time. If we don’t find a solution to the problem, vastly compounded by the Citizens United decision, I think we’re really at risk of losing the democratic quality of the Congress. I think a lot of American history in my adult lifetime has been to describe and accentuate the gulf between the wealthy America and the rest of America. The 1% is a real phenomenon. There’s no question in my mind that the 1% or the 5% at the top have absolutely .. disproportionate access to levers of power in the society and money makes that easier, much easier for them to do.  And as it is, I think people were too cavalier about it. Barney is a good example. Barney was lucky because he had strong support from home and never had to take this too seriously. And so.. But a lot of senior people–Nancy Pelosi doesn’t have to worry about money either. Someone {inaudible}. I think that’s had a corrosive effect because the people down the line who have to worry about it all the time, know somehow intuitively it’s sort of not polite to raise the subject with the speaker or the majority leader. There’s not much internal discussion in my experience among members about the problem of being consumed by the need to raise money, there ought to be more. I’ve also thought in my adult lifetime that the Article 1 status of Congress, as I call it, the obvious intention of the founders, that Congress be the preeminent political power in this society. Always somewhat problematic, made very problematic by Lincoln in a way, but now, you know, pretty much out the window. I mean, the idea that the president is less important than the Congress is laughable, in the modern political context. And that’s too bad because the founders were right in their design, in my opinion. It’s going to be fun to read Meets You on Madison. But you know, Madison had a very clear ideal of what ought to evolve. That there ought to be not a parliamentary system but a new kind of a system in which the House of Representatives was the closest to the people and expressed the wishes and needs of the people most efficiently and effectively. And I don’t think that’s happened. I think we’ve lost that. The final thing I want to mention is that the problem created, totally unanticipated I suspect by any founder, but enunciated so explicitly by Ronald Reagan in his first inaugural address, “The government is not the solution. The government is the problem.” The modern Republican party has allowed itself to become, quite literally, the anti-government party. If the government does it, it’s bad and we got to stop it. It’s really a governing ethos. And tragically, the problems that creates are compounded by the philosophy of life that – I think we should credit Newt Gingrich for bringing to us first of all – that the end really does justify the means. So if our purpose is to limit and to hobble the government’s ability to do things for its citizens then any means we can come up with to achieve that goal is ok. And that really has been the governing ethos for a long time in the Republican Party. And that’s bad, that’s serious, that has real consequences.

Barney Frank (00:08:36):

Well, Bob and I have one big difference here. I’ve always supported reducing the role of money. I’d like to see public financing. But I think people, particularly in the center and to the left, exaggerate the extent to which the money affects public policy. I mean, I think it’s, it would be nice to believe, it would be optimistic to say, if we reduce money, we get less for the rich … I think unfortunately it’s part of the American people …. I mean that it wasn’t campaign contributions that made the majority of the American people for many years oppose raising the estate tax or being for getting rid of it. It’s a kind of a Horatio Alger thing that’s there. I think money obviously has a very, very unfortunate effect on who gets elected to Congress. But I have found that in the day-to-day operations, it doesn’t make that much difference. And the fact is that people get the money from people that would have voted for them anyway. And you know, I remember newspapers that would talk about how the Congressmen from North Carolina and Kentucky were getting such large contributions from the cigarette industry. Well they were going to vote for the cigarette industry anyway. So I would like to reduce it. I think we get less there than we could and I, I am stuck on the nature of the American voters. Now there has been this great change and there’s, I think there’s a … hanging in the balance now, is this a large number of American voters who have traditionally opposed redistribution bought into the notion that class warfare was a bad idea. They’re now espousing it, they’re now complaining about it. Paradoxically though they don’t follow that up with support for the policies that would undo it. And that’s the question, frankly, for the Democrats: can we take advantage of this sense of unfairness and persuade people to do it? But here Bob’s last, very profound point comes in. The problem is that to undo that you need government. So we’re in a vicious cycle. As long as people distrust government and don’t want government to do anything, the problem gets worse. And then the longer, the problem gets worse, the more they distrust government.

Robert Kaiser (00:11:02):

Barney is more hopeful about this than I’ve been, but it’s not that significant a difference in the sense that the real problem for me about the role of money in campaigns now is that when I mentioned that it’s such a distraction and it’s one of many distractions, it’s now been established that members of Congress must continue to live in the district that they represent. Barney was very unusual in the he had an apartment in New York, in Washington and spent weekends in Washington often, but that’s not the norm. There are a whole series of conventions and patterns of behavior that discourage the development of professional lawmaking and lawmakers. These guys are professional politicians. They spend most of their energy, literally cultivating voters and raising the money needed to reach voters. They do not master the subject matter of the committees they serve on or of the big issues of the day.

Barney Frank (00:12:15):

And that actually I think about this for the first time and I agree with that, but the point I would make is that it is true : the average member is spending less time. But I think the major impact of that is a reallocation of power within the institution. I mean, I think it did give me and Nancy Pelosi and Henry Waxman–

Robert Kaiser (00:12:34):

For sure.

Barney Frank (00:12:36):

–that there was much more likely to be deference to others, to the leadership. And my obligation as chairman of the committee was to try to minimize the political problems and to reassure my members, “Hey, you’ll be okay.” Or, you know, “I’ll shape it for you…” But I mean, I agree that there’s much less of this on the part of the members. But it has, I think increased the power of the leadership, particularly of those people who happen to be in pretty safe seats.

Robert Kaiser (00:13:08):

But when the leadership is Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay, the result is not good.

Barney Frank (00:13:13):

Oh, absolutely. That’s, it’s immorally neutral.

Alan Wiseman (00:13:17):

Well, I mean, this is a great, great jumping point for our follow-up questions so I guess, first to you Congressman: in light of this matter what you’re talking about, what do you consider to be your approach to effective lawmaking?

Barney Frank (00:13:30):

What do I consider what?

Alan Wiseman (00:13:31):

To be your approach to effective lawmaking, what’s necessary?

Barney Frank (00:13:35):

You start with your ideal. If you don’t have a sense of how you would like to make the world better for people, you should not be seeking to exercise power over them. Once you do that, your job is to know the balance of power and figure out how you can best move in that direction. Legislating is a very unusual business and you have to take this into account; and people don’t fully understand it. It’s one reason why I differ, I guess, a little with Bob about the primacy of the Congress. There are things that 535 people are just not gonna be able to do as well as you want in some cases. I think some issues go one way and some the other. But here’s the deal: in everybody’s lifetime, their formal official dealings with other people take one of two forms. Either they’re part of a hierarchy in which there is a boss who can hire and fire people and give them orders, or they exchange money. I’ll give you this money you give me the car. Peculiarly, an important institution in which people are formally aligned neither one of those fits or is available to members of Congress. A member of the House of Representatives or the Senate has no boss. No one literally can tell you what to do, how to vote, how to show up. There’s no hierarchy. The people who could fire you are the vast number of people back home. Everything has to be negotiated and you can’t do money. I mean, members of Congress don’t bribe each other, they may help each other with fundraising, but that’s minimal. So you are in this situation in which it’s all persuasion. And again, I can’t think of any other job where there’s nobody you can either give an order to, or take an order from, and nobody who you can fire or can fire you. It is all conciliation. And that’s my post to legislating is to recognize the lack of formal power and then figure out how you accumulate the informal power. Caro on Lyndon Johnson is the best example of that. When I was chairman of the committee, a senior Democrat, my instructions to my staff were, “If any member of our committee asks you to do anything, the reflex answer is yes. And if it seems to you unnecessary or be the minor annoying, we do it.” My job was to do as many things favorable to the other members, particularly committee that I needed. So that when I needed them, they had a vested interest in that relationship. Wasn’t a quid pro quo, but it was always based on the fact that you, you were dependent on the freewill of other people. I said, it took two weeks, nothing complicated. It’s like doing a Rubik’s cube where each square has a mind of its own and can decide what it wants to do and not want to do. So that’s, that’s the job is to combine, you know, strong feelings about what should be done with a recognition of, that doing it requires persuasion. As I said, I said last night, when I was asked once if I was worried that the Speaker was going to be mad at me, I said, “No, I’m not worried about my leader. I’m worried about my followers. They’re the ones who can undo me.” So that’s, that was my approach. And the last part is that you, what you look for in those situations, since it’s all trading and bargaining, you order your own priorities and you cannot treat everything that you think as equally important, there has to be a hierarchy in which, if you’re lucky, other people will care much more about some things than you do, and you will care more about other things, and you can make a trade. It’s a trade on issues. Not, not a favor for a favor.

Robert Kaiser (00:17:46):

There used to be, just thirty years ago, many more independent senators of intellectual influence in the Congress. Committee chairmen, when they had so much more power than today and a real substantive role in government. That has been lost, I think.

Barney Frank (00:18:04):

That’s the point you made though. They’re distracted, they’re making money. They haven’t got the intellectual and emotional energy.

Robert Kaiser (00:18:11):

or commitment.

Alan Wiseman (00:18:13):

Well, that’s a great, I mean, so turning directly to you then, and given your observations of Congress over all the years, you covered them for the press. I mean, if you think about today 2019 give or take a few years, what do you think it takes to be an effective lawmaker in Congress today? Especially for someone that might be less established either electorally or in terms of seniority of say someone like Congressman Frank was.

Robert Kaiser (00:18:34):

The weird, sad fact is that most members of Congress don’t think about that. They actually aren’t doing what Barney correctly prescribes, which is sort through your own ideals, pick some targets that might advance them and pursue that. On the contrary, the average Tea Party member of the House is in this weird position of having been elected as a protest figure known, primarily not for what you’re for, but whatever you’re against. And your measure of success is sort of strange, pretty hard to extract really, but you’re a tribal leader if you’re a Republican from South Carolina now. For example, look at Lindsey Graham’s behavior right now with an election looming, anxiety about a right wing primary challenge, which is, as Barney said last night the biggest anxiety often for these guys, and how is he behaving? You know, in a loony fashion, he’s scurrying around. Doesn’t know what to do. Looks foolish. Is literally being ridiculed. But in South Carolina he appears to be in pretty good shape, which is all he cares about at the moment. But all of this has nothing to do with legislative achievements. And if, if Lindsay Graham were with us and we asked him, what is your primary legislative goal? I know what we’d get. A mushy kind of, well, I want to make sure that the military is strong and efficient and not in danger of being overtaken by the Chinese or anybody else. And you know, a few other clichés like that, but he doesn’t have a real sense. I mean, Barney Frank 20 years ago would say, I’m trying to find ways to build more housing for working class people that they can afford. It was a very specific target, happily achieved in some way, some measure. How many young members come in now?

Barney Frank (00:20:52):

No, in fact it’s the other way around, it’s one of the reasons we have this surfeit of candidates for president. As Bob was saying, how many times have you read, Well, I don’t want him to just spend 20 years trying to get seniority in the House. Where being a House member is denigrated. In fact, you don’t have to, if you know what you’re doing and know how to work it, you don’t have to wait to have influence. You have power as, as one vote, but that, that denigration of being a House member, but you heard it from Pete Buttigieg, you hear it from Seth Moulton or these people–

Robert Kaiser (00:21:24):

Beto O’Rourke.

Barney Frank (00:21:24):

Yeah, that’s right. Now the, the way you do it earlier I mean, obviously when you, I talked about how, as a chairman, I try to maximize my capacity. Okay. What happened for most of the time when most of the people aren’t chairman. And what happens is you’ll find yourself because of the committee system, whoever you are, you’re in the House, and you are in a particular constellation where there are certain issues that are within that jurisdiction and there’s a power distribution. What I did during that time would be to figure out which of the issues in that constellation were the most important to me, and then set out to try to get them accomplished. And generally the way to do it would be to try to find other areas where a majority, more powerful members had a different set of priorities for me, and agree to support their priorities if they would include mine. For example, I’ve got a chapter about it in the book, I got on the immigration subcommittee and I was determined to get rid of the provision in American law that began in 1900. And we finally got rid of in 1987, that said gay and lesbian people cannot come to America. Wasn’t often enforced, but it would be, it could be a bunch of time. Now there was a major immigration package that people had. It wasn’t a high priority for me, but it was acceptable to me. So I made it clear to the people there, this is in the late eighties, I’m in my third or fourth term. I’m prepared to support the whole package if you include the elimination of the anti-gay provision and it worked. And that became part of the deal. So that wherever you are, first remember you have a certain amount of power. You also have other members who you can influence. And you, the ideal at that point, when you don’t have- the more power you have, the more issues you can deal with. But even at the very beginning, pick a couple of very high priority issues to you, morally valuable, important, and find a forum in which you can trade for them by supporting other people’s priorities not that you’re opposed to, but that you are either mildly in favor of or more.

Robert Kaiser (00:23:50):

Or just indifferent.

Barney Frank (00:23:52):

Indifferent. Yeah.

Robert Kaiser (00:23:54):

That’s very good. But this, for this to work, you’ve got to have individuals who are intelligent, who know some history and some public policy, who are–actually think it’s important to worry about some of these things.

Barney Frank (00:24:10):

Yeah. By the way, the guy I made the biggest guy, the biggest deal I made on that was with a Republican, was Al Simpson. Who was very eager to get the Simpson-Mazzoli bill through. And Al and I became allied on this issue.

Robert Kaiser (00:24:25):

But if you don’t have that raw material, human material to work with, it won’t work. And my great anxiety is that the Barney Franks of the next generation are not going to think about Congress as a career choice. It just isn’t on their radar.

Barney Frank (00:24:44):

By the way, I used that experience when I was chairman, I reversed that. If any member came to me with a high priority that did not disrupt the overall scheme, we would do it. But one of the points to talk about legislating. One principle, I hammered it home to my staff and others was, ambiguity is not a reason. Repetition is not a reason not to do something. A member would come to me or one member of staff would come for another member of staff increasingly, unfortunately, and say, “My boss would like this in there.” And at first some of the staff would say, “Oh, well, they want to do this, but it’s not needed. The bill does it anyway.” I say, “Does it do any harm? No. Then it goes in.” We’re not, we’re not short of paper. We have to print the same thing. So I wish to accommodate anything any of the members wanted, as long as it didn’t do any harm. Well, one of the things I knew of Republicans in terms of that’s very relevant, and Bob mentioned this about the negativism of the Republicans today. That’s one reason why Democrats have had some problem and were being accused of being outmaneuvered. And Republicans until recently, were so able to use the threat of government shutdown. And it’s true, it does work some. And the answer is its from a source that I rarely go to: The Bible has King Solomon. In this story, the baby is government and the Democrats are the real mother and the Republicans are the fake mother making the claim. And when the question is, okay, we’ll solve this by cutting the baby in half, the Democrats, “Oh my God, I can’t do that, we have to give in.” And the Republicans are perfectly willing to cut the baby in half. And they win more often because that is an absolutely valid explanation of some of what happens. Not caring and in fact even preferring a totally negative outcome can give you leverage.

Craig Volden (00:26:49):

And the public is not King Solomon in this holding the baby dear and giving it to the Democrats?

Barney Frank (00:26:56):

No, they the public doesn’t follow it. Although I could take it back to Republicans and yeah, that’s good, the Republicans have started to pay a little bit more of a price for it. The biggest problem was when we thought the Republicans would pay a major price for it and under Obama, when they sort of willfully shut down the government and they were hurting. And then shortly after that, the Obama people screwed up the rollout of the healthcare bill. And that, that blew that off the stage.

Robert Kaiser (00:27:27):

That was an enormously consequential hiccup.

Barney Frank (00:27:29):

Yeah. It just reinforced the anti-government, anti-healthcare … took them off the hook for this. It was a major blow to us.

Alan Wiseman (00:27:38):


Craig Volden (00:27:40):

In terms of policy expertise versus sort of the political building up of a coalition, what’s the nature of that trade off? You know, that you were saying on the inconsequential elements.

Barney Frank (00:27:53):

You have to start with the expertise, which is partly–or there is a lot of sources, if you have the time energy to do it. The administration in power, they were very good people work for any administration. In my case, I began when I needed it some from the Bush people. Ben Bernanki and Hank Paulson. But you, you have to start with the knowledge because you can’t negotiate until, you know, you can’t trade off priorities until you know which ones are important. You have to have pretty good expertise. You can’t, if you go into negotiate, and you don’t know the subject, you don’t know what you’re giving away and what’s important. But once you do that, then the expertise comes first. And the more confident you are in the material, the better negotiator you’re going to be.

Craig Volden (00:28:40):

In terms of building up that expertise, the extent to which you have that based on your prior profession and so on versus based on learning on the job?

Barney Frank (00:28:51):

You know, I worry about people who do it only from their own prior professional experience, cause that is inevitably narrow and specific. In my experience, it is to have a first-rate people on the staff when I was blessed with wonderful people, some of whom I inherited from my predecessor. You got, I got it from the administration, from the staff. One of the things that was helpful to me was that within the administration, both the Bush administration and the Obama administration, the top executives differed some with each other, so that Sheila Bair at the FDIC was fighting with Paulson and Bernanki. And that created some space for me to, so I wasn’t the prisoner of any one group, and similarly Geithner differed from, say, Gary Gensler. But you get it from your own staff and from the administration and also from lobbyists – because the good lobbyists, first of all, a good lobbyist understands the first time that he or she lies to somebody, they bogged it up. And yeah, I had lobbyists including I talked to people at the Bank of America which is much in the district of mine. And I would talk to them about, in fact, just into the final stages on the bill, I was marching in the Wellesley Parade and stopped off in the library to go upstairs to meet Brian Moynihan the CEO who lives in Wellesley – my constituent – and his political chief, the wife of Mike Barnicle. And they said, “Well, to do you know, you’re determined to do this?” I said, “Yes, absolutely.” “Okay, can you do it this way instead said it that way?” “You know that makes sense. We can do some of that.” So yes, you, if you’re in control and not in, in, in hock to them they could be useful sources of information about how best to do it.

Robert Kaiser (00:30:48):

Two areas.

Barney Frank (00:30:49):

I made a deal, both come together, but I thought it was a secret until Bob put it in his book with the independent bankers.

Alan Wiseman (00:30:59):

Now the small bankers is awesome.

Barney Frank (00:31:00):

I met with the independent bankers. They were critical to the bill and they, it was on the Consumer Bureau. And we, what I said to them as well, there was an amendment that had been offered by Louis Gutiérrez to alter the ratio of payments for deposit insurance, taking some from the small banks and putting it on the bigger banks by changing the formula. And secondly I came up with the idea that the small banks would not be independently examined by the Consumer Bureau except appointments, we don’t have enough people to be sitting with all these guys. And the deal was, and I talked to the head of the IBA and said, “If we do both of those, can you be neutral and effectively for it?” And he said, “Yes.” And I didn’t tell anybody, but he was so proud of it about what he’d done, that he, he bragged about it to Kaiser and put it in the book.

Robert Kaiser (00:32:01):

Which almost cost him his job I think. Two areas that don’t get much academic attention that Barney has revealed here today, are very important to the creation of legislation. One is staff – staff role, I came to realize reporting for this book, is just absolutely central in everything. But for example, there’s quite a good book, what’s-her-name who worked for Carl Levin on the Permanent Subcommittee of Investigations came out last year. It’s a good book. She’s good. She doesn’t write very well, but it’s very good information. But the purpose of communal investigations was really a very creative and exemplary use of the oversight power.

Barney Frank (00:32:53):

Started by Joe McCarthy.

Robert Kaiser (00:33:01):

So this is, but this, it was completely staff-driven. Everything they did for 40 years and in a good way, I mean, it wasn’t, the staff wasn’t usurping power. It was acting on the priorities of the chairman, but they could get into subjects with a depth and a thoroughness that a member can’t cope with because it’s beyond reach. And I mean, if you literally traced the Senate and the House back, you barely finished it was really staff performance on Dodd Frank, and there’s no contest. The number of hours spent by staff versus the number spent by members on the particular, specific hard questions. You know, a hundred to one, fifty to one.

Craig Volden (00:34:02):

Committee staff versus personal staff and the expertise they have.

Robert Kaiser (00:34:06):

Committee staff. It was interesting. Very few personal staff played a role in anything that I find out.

Barney Frank (00:34:12):

No, there is the defensive perimeter of keeping the member going and help me longer. You can pay … I wish … you could pay the committee staff more than the personal staff. It’s more fun. It’s more interesting. You’re not dealing with hysterical constituents who think that, you know, their brains are being penetrated. But no, no question the staff. And by the way, John Boehner to his credit recognized that. At one point he bursts out, in a meeting with bank lobbyists, “And don’t let some little punk staffer push you around,” whereupon I had printed up 1,000 buttons that said “little punk staffer.” They were very popular. I still see them every so often. But, as Bob knows, that is the greatest bargain people have. They are very good. And you have to have that relationship with them. I mean, I spent a lot of time with them, but in fact, we still have a reunion the staff and the committee, we have a Christmas reunion every year ever since the bill was passed.

Robert Kaiser (00:35:10):

But the nature of staff work has been transformed by the lobbying business. Most staffers were like Jean Roslanowick, Barney’s staff director, who had a long multi-decade career, which are now almost extinct. Very few people spend so many years in the same place. Instead they are lured away to become lobbyists and for huge money. And it just, it makes a cultural difference of great significance.

Craig Volden (00:35:42):

And is that the combination of both the money opportunity, but also that they don’t feel Congress is doing what they had hoped it would do? On the legislating?

Robert Kaiser (00:35:51):

That’s a good question.

Barney Frank (00:35:52):

That’s part of it.

Robert Kaiser (00:35:55):


Barney Frank (00:35:55):

I mean, I, you know, they come together. It’s one thing to sacrifice significant income for something you feel is very worthwhile.

Craig Volden (00:36:04):


Barney Frank (00:36:04):

But if what you’re doing, isn’t that worthwhile, then the tradeoff changes.

Craig Volden (00:36:07):


Robert Kaiser (00:36:08):

And the staff under Boehner, they weren’t doing anything. There was nothing affirmative happening. And that was therefore, discouragement was [inaudible].

Barney Frank (00:36:22):

When I became chairman, the parliamentarian of the committee had been a guideboard for the House [inaudible] he’d come to work for the Republicans. A very decent, very honest guy. And the first thing I did when I became chairman was ask him to stay on which he did – Tom Duncan. And he died earlier this year and I made a special trip to Washington and I did many others. And we had a couple hundred people at a memorial service for him. The reunion of the committee, staff and others kind of celebrating the joint effort and it was symbolic. And I said, it was expressive of the role that they play.

Robert Kaiser (00:36:57):

The second area is the degree to which the sitting administration shapes the business of Congress. Nobody likes to talk about this. The administration doesn’t want to claim credit because they know that won’t play well on the Hill and the elders won’t acknowledge it because it would appear to diminish the significance of their own role. But the fact is, I got Barney and Chris both to admit this ultimately, the work done in Geithner’s Treasury department was absolutely crucial to the evolution of the bill itself.

Barney Frank (00:37:35):

I never admitted? I acknowledged that from the beginning. I didn’t start until they sent us something.

Robert Kaiser (00:37:40):


Barney Frank (00:37:41):

I did not start the work until they worked on them.

Robert Kaiser (00:37:44):

There were, there was a moment when the people on the committee and Barney too, were frustrated because it was taking them longer than they had said it would take to produce them.

Barney Frank (00:37:54):

Well feeding off the crisis took us longer, but it was also during the crisis we had to start with, with what Paulson gave us. We modified it some, but you just don’t have the capacity to on something like that to do it yourself from the beginning.

Craig Volden (00:38:11):

So there’s both too little administration involvement and too much administration involvement I would imagine on these major issues.

Robert Kaiser (00:38:19):

Why too little?

Craig Volden (00:38:20):

Too little–

Alan Wiseman (00:38:21):

Because of the administration for example maybe. I mean in some policy areas, for it just to be not engaging now.

Robert Kaiser (00:38:26):

Oh, of course. Yes. Yeah, no we’re in a period of abdication of governmental responsibility. Nobody really is paying attention and we’re going to pay for that enormously over time. It’s tragic and there’ll be no, the worst aspect of it – changing the subject – is the number of people being driven out of the government.

Alan Wiseman (00:38:47):


Robert Kaiser (00:38:48):

Michael Lewis’ book is extremely important.

Craig Volden (00:38:53):

On the element of – doubling back a little bit – the expertise that members have from their personal backgrounds and how that matters. We were also wondering more about the expertise that they bring in legislation based on having spent time in state legislatures.

Barney Frank (00:39:13):

That is more important and more constructive because the thing I talked about having no formal power, no hierarchy. If you don’t have any, you live in a constantly 360-degree bargaining situation.

Craig Volden (00:39:22):


Barney Frank (00:39:22):

That’s state legislatures. There’s a lot of similarity to that. But again, to go back to the personal experience more often than not, when people cited their personal experience, it was narrow and specific and was not helpful. Nobody’s, you know, you’re, you’re legislating big and broad policies. So I didn’t, I never found that people in–well, in some cases, I take it back. Bob mentioned Jim Himes who had been in the financial industry, and he knew some stuff about what we were doing.

Robert Kaiser (00:39:58):

About derivatives particularly.

Barney Frank (00:39:59):

Yeah. But that was helpful about knowing the subject matter, but on the whole, people would be knowing all the doctors in the House and they generally did more. I mean, like, I guess the best example is–

Robert Kaiser (00:40:14):

Mr. Price.

Barney Frank (00:40:15):

Or the eminent heart surgeon, Dr. Frist, who looked at Terry Schiavo and said, he could tell from watching her on television, that, that her eyes were following what was happening. And then of course they found out that her eyes were just jelly, that her brain had ceased to exist. And there was nothing behind the eyes.

Craig Volden (00:40:38):

Other backgrounds.

Robert Kaiser (00:40:40):

I would say personally interests, personal experience does create subject matter interest. Not expertise for legislation, but just, “I want to be on that committee because that’s what I know about” is a very natural and common instinct for a new member. And then people choose their avenues often based on what they’ve done before. I wonder what the percentage of House members now who started their careers, or at some point served in the state legislature, I want to know if that percentage has changed. I think it’s way down, but I’m guessing, I’d like to know. It’s very relevant. Because if you maybe read Barney’s book or the biography of Barney by Stuart Weisberg, you see how much of his legislative skill was the product of his master legislator experience. It wasn’t, it wasn’t about the substance of issues. It was about how to make deals, about how to listen to people and pick up what they really say.

Barney Frank (00:41:52):

You’re in a really unusual situation which nobody can give anybody any orders. And you’re in this constant–

Robert Kaiser (00:41:57):


Barney Frank (00:41:58):

Bargaining – cajolery.

Craig Volden (00:42:00):

Right. So some of the other backgrounds, so we’ve seen declines, but now perhaps a resurgence in veterans in Congress, does that matter? People with JDs in Congress does that matter?

Barney Frank (00:42:13):

I don’t think, if you randomized that you would see that at any, any significant difference that said they they’re all over the lot in terms of issues.

Alan Wiseman (00:42:22):


Barney Frank (00:42:25):

Belligerent veterans and pacifist veterans.

Alan Wiseman (00:42:28):

As it pertains to the law degree in particular I mean, do you think your own legal background helped you?

Barney Frank (00:42:32):


Alan Wiseman (00:42:33):


Barney Frank (00:42:34):

The legal background helped in the state legislature – what we think of more is that the state legislatures make the laws, the property laws, the criminal laws. Congress is more of a resource allocator. The one area that I have advised people when they say to me, I want to be in public policy, when I go to Congress, when I run for Congress, what should I study? The answer is economics in general and in particular accounting. A very large percentage of the debates are debates about accounting. Is Social Security going to run out of money? What is the deficit? Accounting issues are an extra, what, how much capital does a bank have or should it have? Accounting is a much more significant factor, because things are not as simple as they seem. And then economics in general. I don’t, I don’t think whether you are a lawyer or not makes any difference.

Craig Volden (00:43:28):

Bipartisanship – I want to talk a little bit about that – is described, you know, in high profile issues that there isn’t much bipartisanship today. That’s changed, but on the, on lower profile issues …

Barney Frank (00:43:46):

Unfortunately, no, that’s one of the Gingrich things, that they poisoned it. It may be coming back now, but one of them, and it really is this sharp drop from the bipartisanship under Clinton and Bush.

Robert Kaiser (00:44:01):

Very important.

Barney Frank (00:44:02):

A lot of bipartisanship. But when Obama came in then it just sharply came to an end.

Robert Kaiser (00:44:08):

It’s an underappreciated, abrupt discontinuity. And then, you know, the story of the dinner at The Capital Grille on the night of Obama’s inauguration, it’s in the book by Draper is it? Where the House leadership, Republican leadership agreed we’re just going to block everything he proposes. And then McConnell takes the Republicans on a retreat to West Virginia and does the same thing. They actually openly, we now can say openly, it wasn’t open at the time, but they conspired to abandon–

Barney Frank (00:44:47):


Robert Kaiser (00:44:49):

All efforts.

Barney Frank (00:44:49):

When all you want to do is make it a negative. And that then–what happened then is that is theoretically you might work here, but people get angry at each other so that they know as much as I said on any of them. But a little of it may be coming back now. But a–

Robert Kaiser (00:45:06):

The elimination, as I discussed last night and elsewhere, the elimination of personal relationships going, having your kids in the same school in Arlington, Virginia, and so on has had a huge impact. These people don’t know each other and they’re, they, they come to town now having run a vicious, negative campaign and they’re supposed to turn around and make friends? No, it doesn’t work.

Barney Frank (00:45:33):

The earmarking people, that was one of the areas of bipartisanship. People, it was geographic, you know, work together. I worked together with a Republican who for four years represented and worked to create the new Bedford National Park. And so there is really very little.

Robert Kaiser (00:45:49):

It’s a wonderful issue, earmarks, which I wrote about. So to have much money, but you could argue philosophically and religiously. I get ferociously against it as corrupting and bad, but Barney’s absolutely right it’s a source of grease in the system.

Barney Frank (00:46:11):

And of mobilism. Particularly, in highways. I mean, I was often working with local people who were talking highway in here. I know we’ll take a little slow down. That’s a nice area. We’re worried about traffic. And that was the most constant point of friction.

Robert Kaiser (00:46:25):

Tip O’Neill on the Big Dig. One of the great stories.

Craig Volden (00:46:30):

So within the parties, then we see some intraparty kind of factionalization. Some of that is set up via caucuses. You know, what do you see as kind of a, how are either to promote legislation or to stop legislation of Congressional Black Caucus, New Dems, and so on?

Barney Frank (00:46:48):

The Black Caucus works the way I said before. If you have a higher priority than other people on some issues and you go along, I mean the Black Caucus agrees to help the Democrats make a majority and majority gets priority on some of its issues.

Robert Kaiser (00:47:06):

Yeah, it gets the seniority system.

Barney Frank (00:47:09):

That’s a big deal.

Robert Kaiser (00:47:09):

That’s a really important underappreciated and not necessarily positive fact that the House Democrats are committed to the seniority system because that’s the way you pay off the Blacks, because they have so much of it, seniority.

Craig Volden (00:47:26):


Robert Kaiser (00:47:28):

And so when they’re good, it’s fine. And when they’re bad, I mean, John Conyers, of Michigan was really out of it as chairman of the judiciary. To not have all his marbles and nobody dared raise the issue.

Barney Frank (00:47:44):

He claimed by the way that he was not as old as people said, because he had falsified his biography because he was too young when he got elected and he thought people would disrespect him. So he made himself three years older. But no, the, the internal, the internal becomes less important as the cross-party thing becomes. The more partisan things are, the more pressure there is to go along with your party. Although the Democrats did just run into a problem, obviously on the budget. So there is some, but both parties are much more unified than it used to be. Democrats to the left. Republicans to the right. Which is very interesting from the kind of a comparative politics thing. When I was younger, the political science exchange – MacGregor Burns and others, late forties, fifties, Schattschneider – there was this envy that American political scientists had of the party unity in England. And now it is totally reversed. America has become overwhelmingly party unity and the House of Commons is in shambles.

Craig Volden (00:48:54):

Going with that sort of comparison. If the U.S. were in a similar situation of needing to negotiate something akin to Brexit is there some benefit to the Congress style we have?

Barney Frank (00:49:08):

Well, in this case yeah, because the president could do it and it’d be up or down. But it still might go down. I mean, look, I, it’s not as important an issue, but it is pointing to apparently Trump hasn’t got the votes for the post-NAFTA agreement.

Craig Volden (00:49:24):

Right, right. Moving from–

Robert Kaiser (00:49:28):

The old one stays enforced, right?

Barney Frank (00:49:31):

Yes it does.

Robert Kaiser (00:49:32):


Barney Frank (00:49:32):

Well, no, no. He’s gonna pull out of it. He has the unilateral right. The time has passed. So he could unilaterally pull out – especially not directly over this. But for a great deal maker, Trump has made a–

Robert Kaiser (00:49:45):

No deals.

Barney Frank (00:49:45):

No deals. NAFTA we’re talking about, but not North Korea, not China, not Iran. Yes. He has a total lack of success of deals. He also, for a man who’s a great chief executive, has an incredible record of appointing people who he himself shortly after decides are totally incompetent. His head of his Federal Reserve, the defense secretary, the chairman of the… Secretary of State, attorney general. I mean, he just, he denounces his own people.

Craig Volden (00:50:16):

Is this an example of something larger about business people entering politics? Or is it idiosyncratic?

Robert Kaiser (00:50:22):

It’s a product of narcissistic personality disorder.

Craig Volden (00:50:29):

House versus Senate. When you were advancing legislation through the House, so obviously that’s a complex, as you were saying, Rubik’s cube style. How much did you have to take into consideration what’s doable in the Senate?

Barney Frank (00:50:43):

One of the things that Bob talks about that I’m proud of is the very good relationship Chris Dodd and I had. House-Senate tension is often a problem. There were two relations I was proud of, the other of which with the generally very conservative Democrat who had chaired the Agriculture Committee, Collin Peterson, because we had shared jurisdiction over derivatives. And he and I worked very hard and that worked very well. But yeah, Chris and I, we were friendly and worked very close together. And basically what would happen would be–

Robert Kaiser (00:51:08):

So did the staffs.

Barney Frank (00:51:10):


Robert Kaiser (00:51:10):

Because they did, the staff thought it was okay.

Barney Frank (00:51:14):

And there’s often staff friction about jealousy and–

Robert Kaiser (00:51:19):


Barney Frank (00:51:19):

We avoided all of that. Chris would from time to time. Well, first of all, he had a major impact on the shape of the bill. People were talking, “The bill’s too a big.” Our original plan was to pass five or six separate bills. I mean, this bill is very big because it’s the equivalent of six or seven bills that passed in the New Deal. The Security Exchange Act, banking, Glass-Steagall, etcetera. And Chris said to me, I said, “You know, we’re going to do…” He said, “Hey, pal. I’m going to have a hard enough time getting 60 votes once. Don’t make me get 60 votes nine times.” So we helped, we, we treated it as separate bills as we marked them up and then they were consolidated to go to the floor. But then on some other issues as well, Chris would say, “I can’t. You know, I need you to, I need you to do this. I can’t get this through.” It ended up and a couple of times he would say, you know, he’d say, “Mary Landrieu has got this issue. You got to take care of her. I can’t get this through.” So we would do that. I mean, I had to accommodate him more because he needed 60% and I didn’t. So he had a tougher row to hoe.

Alan Wiseman (00:52:32):

And, building on this point, and I guess to turn to you given all your observations of the House and Senate over those years, but can you point out there examples beyond Dodd-Frank, where you can think of situations where the House and Senate worked really well together over extremely contentious issues?

Barney Frank (00:52:48):


Robert Kaiser (00:52:49):


Barney Frank (00:52:51):

Chris Dodd again was a very important factor.

Alan Wiseman (00:52:55):

Anything prior to the Obama administration?

Robert Kaiser (00:53:01):

The Senate that I covered in the seventies, well conferences, the changing role of the conference committee – role or methodology, is a little sort of good academic subject that I don’t think it has been much addressed. But conferees in the seventies, individual members, had enormous influence because both Houses and the leadership both Houses acknowledged the role of the conferees to really rewrite the bill if they needed to, to get a consensus.

Barney Frank (00:53:48):

In fact, you could sometimes let a contentious issue go over, and not have a vote on it in either House with the understanding that–

Robert Kaiser (00:53:55):

It’ll be dealt with.

Barney Frank (00:53:55):

They fixed in the conference report and could not be subject to a separate vote.

Robert Kaiser (00:53:58):

And nobody’s fingerprints would be visible.

Barney Frank (00:54:02):

Then it was yes or no, they couldn’t do it to them.

Robert Kaiser (00:54:04):

Right. And that, I mean, the Gingrich approach to conferences was to avoid them at all possible situations. And there was the creative conference committee, which had that role of–

Barney Frank (00:54:23):

And they came back and you notice people were very happy to have it because it solved the budget crisis this year.

Robert Kaiser (00:54:28):


Barney Frank (00:54:28):

And they all talked about it. Leahy and Shelby and Lowey and Kay Granger they. I mean, they said, they told Trump to leave them alone and they had a conference committee of the appropriators and they solved it. By the way, there’s a linguistic point that has always bothered me. Conferee is a misnomer, that we were in fact, conferors. Conferee is the subject of the conference or the conferee that you would legitimately, the conferees were the two bills, which were the subjects, the people who actually participated in the conference should have been called the conferors. But I dropped that line.

Alan Wiseman (00:55:05):

We can reintroduce into political science vernacular if you like.

Barney Frank (00:55:08):

That’s an example of Nancy Pelosi. When we came to do the conference committee and it was the primary jurisdiction was the Financial Services Committee. But the Agriculture Committee had jurisdiction. Government Operations had a little bit because of the structure of the financial, Consumer Financial Protection Board. And I think there may have been one other committee. And she said, “Okay, let’s go over your conferees.” And I get a motion and say no wait let’s go over this. And she said, “No, we got to do this and this.” She said, “I want you to have a majority of the conferees, I don’t want you to have an issue no matter what happens.” I, in that we, that was her specific argument, we might not even, and she was right.

Robert Kaiser (00:55:50):

Her words. And she saved you, and what was the one thing you would’ve been in trouble about? Can’t remember now, if you hadn’t had that. Yeah, it was something.

Barney Frank (00:56:00):

We had one on the preemption when the New Yorkers were a little shaky. Chris Dodd on the other hand was upset because he did not have that. Harry Reid gave, Chris had a minority from – four from agriculture and three were from banking or something. So Chris, or four or five, and Chris envied me that he had a little bit more of a problem, but that was Nancy’s skill and specific attention to detail and knowledge the way you hear about, oh, you’re right. We gotta, so I had a majority on every issue I needed.

Craig Volden (00:56:38):

That idea of the conference committee sometimes taking away the contentious issues that would have otherwise been voted on. To what extent is there also the limitation of contentious issues by kicking the can off to administrative agencies by delegating some of those decisions and what are some examples along those lines?

Barney Frank (00:56:58):

Well, in some of the cases and I always thought I wanted to ban arbitration. I wanted to make it illegal for a financial institution to require the customer to submit to arbitration and waive the right to go to court. That was in our bill. The Senate couldn’t get that through because the Senator from South Dakota, Tim Johnson, and all the credit card guys… So we gave the SEC the power to do it. A couple of times we did that. The other dodge would be to commit something to a study. I said, at one point, I, you know, I offered an amendment that any member who sponsored an amendment to create a study, within three months after it was completed, had to take a public test on what it said. But send you, empowering administration we did that a couple of times. We gave the SEC the power to promulgate rules and–

Robert Kaiser (00:57:52):

The Volcker Rule of course.

Barney Frank (00:57:53):


Craig Volden (00:57:56):

And then the studies, do we ever see that they’re followed up with legislation?

Robert Kaiser (00:58:00):

They are.  Not with legislation but they, the study emerges.

Craig Volden (00:58:03):


Robert Kaiser (00:58:05):

There’s a vast pile of unread studies.

Craig Volden (00:58:10):

They’re produced whether they matter or not. That’s a different thing.

Barney Frank (00:58:15):

Cause sometimes you have to give jurisdiction. I mean like the bulk of it was too complicated for us to write it.

Craig Volden (00:58:19):


Barney Frank (00:58:20):

We didn’t mandate that a rule along those lines had to be there on arbitration that was different. You could have mandated it, but we said, you decide whether you want to do it or not. The other one, I guess, was–

Robert Kaiser (00:58:30):

The fees for one of the, what did they call them, the credit card fees.

Barney Frank (00:58:33):


Alan Wiseman (00:58:36):

So what was that delegated to?

Barney Frank (00:58:39):

For the fees or the Consumer Bureau? What we do is the Fed because when we passed the credit card bill, we hadn’t passed the controller bill. [inaudible] One of the things that the Consumer Bureau took powers from all the other bank records. It took all the consumer powers and put them there. And so they, they inherited that, but it was originally independent.

Craig Volden (00:59:05):

We’ve said that we have a kind of a different maybe mix of folks who enter politics today and who are interested in the lawmaking functions. To the extent that someone’s entering in the freshmen class today and is excited about lawmaking – wants to make a policy difference – what’s the advice that you would offer?

Barney Frank (00:59:30):

I sort of said it before. Get on the best committee you can, from the standpoint of your interests and look at the issues in that committee’s jurisdiction. Figure out which ones you care the most about and then look at the power of alignment in the committee and try to figure out how you can trade your support for other people’s priorities to get support for yours to be included in the committee’s product.

Robert Kaiser (01:00:00):

That’s really a very good, concise statement. And it’s accurate. I think the real question for me is how many people in the freshmen class arrive with such an ambition in their head? I don’t know the answer.

Barney Frank (01:00:17):

No more than thinking about, well, you know what used to help me? Because it’s true. I mean, one of my coaches, everybody, who’s there thinking about going up, coming up to the Senate, your people got, think about the management. How you would like to in 1980, enormously grateful that I won at all. I was convinced that I would absolutely never be able to do anything more than that. Hell, freedom, nothing left to lose. I was going to be a congressman for 30 years I hoped. And that helped me. I wasn’t worried about advancement. I didn’t think I had the chance.

Alan Wiseman (01:00:51):

Why didn’t you think about advancement to that point?

Barney Frank (01:00:54):

‘cause I’m gay. I’m lucky to be here, given the prejudice. 1980.

Alan Wiseman (01:01:02):


Barney Frank (01:01:04):

I wasn’t going to be able to go anywhere else.

Craig Volden (01:01:07):

Anybody else?

Barney Frank (01:01:09):

I was, as the Washington Post pointed out when I finally did come out, Pete Buttigieg was five.

Craig Volden (01:01:20):

So the progressive ambition is hitting most members? You think that.

Barney Frank (01:01:24):

More these days, probably cause it goes through a bunch of, the denigration of being in the House.

Craig Volden (01:01:28):


Barney Frank (01:01:30):

There’s less prestige and, although…

Robert Kaiser (01:01:34):

It’s also hard psychologically. I saw this again and again in my Washington career. Anybody gets elected to the House of Representatives is a big f*king deal. I’m a Congressman! And then you come to town and discover that, yeah, but you’re one of 435 congressmen. And in fact, you’re way down the pecking order, and it’s going to take you a long time to achieve a position of any stature and significance. And for many people who are competitive, self-promoting people by nature, the discovery of this, the realities of the situation is very painful.

Barney Frank (01:02:19):

And they have oversold in their campaign.

Robert Kaiser (01:02:22):

Of course.

Barney Frank (01:02:22):

They’ve all talked about what, the more enormously transformative people they’re going to be.

Robert Kaiser (01:02:26):


Barney Frank (01:02:26):

In the end. Actually there’s a great piece that Al Smith, when he got elected to the state Senate in New York, you’d be up in Albany. And he talks about how he was, you know, he was all puffed up and he got to Albany. He was a member of the minority and he was just being totally ignored. And he finally said, the dog pissed on his shoe. And he thought that was about symbolic of a state senator in Albany. You know a freshman.

Robert Kaiser (01:02:54):

But it’s a, it isn’t–how many people have you met like Barney? Not very many. I mean, that’s the kind of person that could have. Waxman is another, can really succeed at the system because of intelligence, patience. What my Yankee mother used to call Stick-to-it-iveness. All rare qualities in new members of Congress. It really makes a difference.

Barney Frank (01:03:24):

The nature of the job, but I should add what was then overwhelming. My colleagues had said somebody, when I think about Congress. Wasn’t a great secret that I was gay, but when I get down there, I was not keeping it a secret in Washington. I oppressed myself too much in Boston. And by the way, ’84, ’85, it was clear at some point I was going to come out. And when I made that clear in ’86, every liberal member of Congress with whom I worked closely, all of whom were a hundred percent supporters of gay rights even back then, asked me not to come out. Pat Schroeder, Ron Dellums. And they said, “You know, you’re a very valuable ally. And if you come out, it’s gonna make you marginalized.” And I couldn’t deny that, but I just said, “But personally I can’t, I can’t live this way. I got to do it.” And when I did come out, many of them said to me, “You know, we were wrong. Yeah, we were afraid if you came out it would be bad for you, but you are so much happier now.” And given the interpersonal nature of the way you get influence, it improved my performance. I mean, that was the general sense of my colleagues that, yeah, I was better at this job of give and take and personal, because I was not angry all the time.

Craig Volden (01:04:59):

When you arrived in Congress, were there some members you thought were “I’d like to emulate their lawmaking styles?”

Barney Frank (01:05:09):

Yeah. Actually, early on before I got there, I was a pre-vice-presidential fan of Hubert Humphrey, who was a very effective legislator. I decided and I thought Mo Udall’s personal style was a very, very good one. In fact, one of my thrilling moments was: I worked in Mo’s 1976 presidential campaign. In 1980 I got elected, I go to Washington as a member. There’s a lame duck session. And I wanted to talk to one of the other members of Congress. So I said to the doorman, “Would you ask Mr. Shannon to come out to me?” [The doorman said,] “Oh sir, you’re a member. You can go on the floor if you want.” Well, that’s the first time I went to the floor. So I went from the door that comes in from the South steps of the Capitol. And as I walked in, I literally bumped into Mo Udall who said, “Oh, hi, Barney.” And that was just a transformative moment for me to really know he’s now my colleague, but Mo was very effective. The other one who I–

Robert Kaiser (01:06:12):

What was your job in ‘76?

Barney Frank (01:06:14):

Just speaking for him. I mean, I wasn’t working full time or I was in the, I’d say that I was a state rep and campaigning for him. I remember one point doing a–

Robert Kaiser (01:06:23):

I covered that campaign for six weeks.

Barney Frank (01:06:24):

We had a debate before some Jewish group and everybody sent his or her Jewish Representative Jimmy Siegel did [inaudible] and Milton Shapp sent Cloris Leachman. She was, she was Milton Shapp’s advocate yeah. But the guy who I think was the best legislator I shared with, and I saw Dave Obey. Now it’s interesting cause he was the meanest son of a bitch, David had the personality of a, of a snake much of the time, but he was thoughtful and fed it into a broader context. And I’d say he was the single best legislator. And we worked well together. He was chairman of the Appropriations Committee on some, from time to time, he would say, when he would ask me to make an amendment, because as chairman, he had sort of, he had to preserve relationships with his ranking Republicans. So I would do his dirty work.

Robert Kaiser (01:07:18):

How about Dingell?

Barney Frank (01:07:20):

I was never as impressed with John. I think he used his authority more than his skills. And I don’t know if, for some reason–

Robert Kaiser (01:07:27):

He was a bully.

Barney Frank (01:07:27):

And I, but David was clever very, very skillful.

Craig Volden (01:07:34):

So same set of approaches and skills. It sounds like they were different than yours. So this is a different path.

Barney Frank (01:07:39):

I mean, he was, he’d be angry, but it was the same sort of figuring out deals. In fact, he, even one, you know, he told me one of the negative Bernie Sanders story, which was that he was trying to get the best deal for the Democrats on home heating assistance. And he made a deal with his Republican counterparts that he would get more money than he thought he could get if it went to the floor, but the deal was that there wouldn’t be a vote on it. So he went to Sanders, who’d been a major advocate and said, “I can get this. But the deal is, no amendments. So can you accept that and not offer an amendement?” He said, “No.” So Obey said, “Well, what number do you need? So you wouldn’t offer an amendment?” And Sanders said, “Oh, Dave, I have to offer an amendment. I’m the champion of this program.” And he did the same thing with Debbie Stabenow that he had to offer an amendment and screw the deal. And Obey, well, he could be rough in person, but he, he did all that negotiating and balancing and working things out and deferring to members on things that were important to them.

Robert Kaiser (01:08:43):

That’s an important point. There are very few members of the modern House, less popular with their colleagues than Bernie Sanders. If they do this grandstanding impulse is the single worst thing in terms of how your colleagues react to you and he couldn’t help himself. He was just–

Craig Volden (01:09:03):


Robert Kaiser (01:09:03):

Horrible about it.

Craig Volden (01:09:06):

Is there anybody pulled off both of those? So those sound like their intention, the grandstanding kind of show horse / workhorse dichotomy that they can come together.

Barney Frank (01:09:17):

Ted Kennedy was good, you know.

Craig Volden (01:09:18):


Barney Frank (01:09:18):

You know, I mean, it’s not that hard to do both. I had a pretty high public profile, but I think I was pretty effective. But he just didn’t care as much about the legislative outcome. It may be in part because he was so far left, that nothing made any difference, but I just think it was more that his ego was so strong.

Craig Volden (01:09:41):

Personalities as far as, are you willing to accept a half loaf type of thing?

Barney Frank (01:09:48):

Yeah, he just he was, he had to have his way and he had to get the credit for it.

Alan Wiseman (01:09:58):

I’m thinking, I mean, turning to the contemporary Congress and it doesn’t necessarily, pardon me, doesn’t have to necessarily be the freshmen class, but within the last say 10 years, especially in the years since your retirement who among the younger cohorts, do you think has any of these qualities?

Barney Frank (01:10:16):

I left out one other guy who’s become even more and more and very skillful, Steny Hoyer. He’s very effective. Steny a couple of times too, because he had better relationships with the more moderate members although he’s been very liberal himself. One or two times in the conference report I needed, I went to Steny and said, “I can’t, I can’t break this one. I’m done.” You know, you have only so many asks and Steny was very helpful in sorting that out. Of the a, I don’t know myself, I give a report, there’s a woman who replaced Ed Markey named Catherine Clark who’s been put up into the leadership. She’s very highly regarded. My successor, Joe Kennedy, also gets very high marks from people for what he for what he does. In my old committee, although he’s not one of the new members, a cousin by law firm of Bob’s, Ed Perlmutter from Colorado he’s one. He’s, he’s very good at it and very, he’s the one who brokered the deal to keep Pelosi as Speaker. He had been critical of her and then basically had conversations and she got the message that at some point she had to say that she wasn’t going to be Speaker forever.

Alan Wiseman (01:11:31):

That’s right.

Barney Frank (01:11:32):

And he worked out the deal by which she was, she was able to do that. Obviously there are some others, I haven’t, you know, I try not to go look over people’s shoulders.

Alan Wiseman (01:11:45):

Sure, sure.

Barney Frank (01:11:47):

Go back there and do that.

Alan Wiseman (01:11:50):

And Bob, do you have any thoughts of the more recent, maybe not the complete rookies, but you know, since the time that the Congressman has left?

Robert Kaiser (01:11:56):

Well, you know, I, I left too in ’14. So I’m, I don’t feel up to date. Chris Van Hollen was a very interesting figure, not known in the country, but who’s just extremely bright, hardworking, serious.

Barney Frank:

Would have been Speaker is he hadn’t run for the Senate.


Robert Kaiser:

Yeah. And I don’t know anything about how he’s doing in the Senate, but I’m sure he’s quiet this is an asset. In that he’s not a grandstander and very good.

Craig Volden (01:12:29):

Did you detect anything of women versus men? Their lawmaking style?

Barney Frank (01:12:37):

No, I don’t. I think that’s a myth.

Craig Volden (01:12:40):


Robert Kaiser (01:12:44):

Some of the Republican women I hear [inaudible] are really nasty. What was that woman from North Carolina on the Rules Committee?

Barney Frank (01:12:55):

Virginia Foxx.

Robert Kaiser (01:12:56):

Gosh, disgusting human being. And they’re, they, they were totally ineffectual as legislators cause they were just vituperative screamers.

Craig Volden (01:13:11):

As Congress is taking a larger oversight role right now, do we see oversight and legislation coming together in some contexts or are they separate?

Barney Frank (01:13:21):

Oversight is a political substitute for legislation.

Craig Volden (01:13:24):

So you would see them as substitutes.

Craig Volden (01:13:27):

Are there realms in which they are complements?

Robert Kaiser (01:13:30):

Can be, but not when you have divided control.

Barney Frank (01:13:35):

When you have an ability to get together, then oversight … Can they go? Well, Bob gave you an example. The permanent subcommittee that Carl Levin had. There was a point at which there was a stall in terms of trying to get to 60 in the Senate. And Levin had a hearing about, was it Goldman? Had it done something? Levin had a very good hearing about some terrible thing that Goldman did and that broke the logjam for Chris. That was a case where that, where the oversight spurred the legislation.

Robert Kaiser (01:14:11):

It wasn’t a coincidence either. They knew what they were doing on Levin’s staff. They were trying to help.

Alan Wiseman (01:14:21):

That’s interesting. I didn’t appreciate that because the way the book reads, it seems that these, the lineup is almost serendipitous.

Robert Kaiser (01:14:28):

Well this book that came out, that I mentioned by this woman whose name, I forgot, who was Levin’s staff director. She’s more candid about this.

Alan Wiseman (01:14:43):

We’ve gone for quite a while. Probably maybe just one more general questions then we’ll go to break.

Barney Frank (01:14:48):

I was with Dodd by the way on the accident. I was with Dodd in the most, beginning of 2006. He said, you know, “I’m just so frustrated. I’ve been in the Senate 30 years and I’m not chairman of anything.” Said, “I’m behind Ted Kennedy, Joe Biden, and Paul Sarbanes.” Kennedy is this, Biden is that, and Sarbanes… Paul’s heart beats about once a minute. He’s never gonna pull out, he so deliberative. And then about two months later Sarbanes announced he’s retiring, and Chris became chair. Similarly with me, they said I was fourth. And then Chuck Schumer ran for the Senate and Bruce Vento had mesothelioma. And John LaFalce was redistricted out. They were all two of them younger than me and one was a couple months older. So I became chairman purely by what was I? Tip O’Neill – Ed Markey went to Tip O’Neill when he got elected, because he replaced a guy named Torbert Macdonald who’d been Jack’s college roommate, who drank himself to death in his early 60s. And he won the seat and he felt a little guilty about taking over and he went to O’Neill and he said, “You know, Tip, I just feel real guilty that, you know, I’m so happy, but it was because Torby died.” O’Neill said, “Edward, just remember you are in a profession in which you will advance by the death, defeat, or disgrace of one of your friends.”

Alan Wiseman (01:16:21):

Glass half full sort of sentiment there. Okay.

Craig Volden (01:16:23):

So my last question – they set up a Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, what can Congress do to fix itself or is it all external?

Robert Kaiser (01:16:31):

There is such a committee?

Alan Wiseman (01:16:32):

There is.

Barney Frank (01:16:37):

Nancy set it up.

Robert Kaiser (01:16:37):

Who is in charge?

Alan Wiseman (01:16:37):

Derek Kilmer from Washington and the co-chair is–I can’t recall the Republican’s name. There’s actually a co-chair instead of a ranking member and it has to have a supermajority support.

Barney Frank (01:16:51):

The best thing you could do would be for people to stay there. I would tell you this as the chairman, you have the House comes in on Monday night, and leaves Thursday early afternoon or Tuesday to Friday. That means in effect you have one day that you can be sure to have committee meetings because you can’t have the – well, you have two. If they come Monday night, you can have a meeting on Tuesday and Wednesday. You cannot have a committee meeting on what is called a getaway day. It’s interesting doing what Bob said. The last day of the session is called getaway day, and people leave, you won’t have a quorum to do any business. And that is part of the problem, the constraining timeframe. So I, you know, if you could, well, even people are still gonna go home, meet a full four days a week would be one thing. Beyond that I can’t think of too many structural things that would make a difference.

Craig Volden (01:17:52):


Robert Kaiser (01:17:55):

No frustrations, no rules or traditions? I’m trying to think. No other rules about a bill must lay on the table for x days…

Barney Frank (01:18:07):

Yeah, yeah.

Robert Kaiser (01:18:10):

So that’s gum things up. It could be improved.

Barney Frank (01:18:13):

Interesting. You know, even in the digital age, if you do not have a physical copy of the bill typed on this special engrossing typewriter, by law it does not exist.

Robert Kaiser (01:18:26):

It could be modernized.

Barney Frank (01:18:29):


Craig Volden (01:18:31):

Staff compensation, something along those lines.

Barney Frank (01:18:37):

I would increase the pay for personal staff.

Alan Wiseman (01:18:47):

Would you micromanage staff allocations in a way that–

Barney Frank (01:18:51):

No, they have to be even. Too much power to the leadership if you, you know, there’s no variation. Unlike state legislatures where there is – certainly Massachusetts and some others. Your office space, your staff allotment, and your travel budget are fixed for everybody and there’s no leadership influence. It’d be terrible if there was.

Alan Wiseman (01:19:18):

Sure. I guess the final question then for you, Congressman, is thinking broadly across your career in the House in particular, is there anything you’d wish you’d done differently as a lawmaker?

Barney Frank (01:19:31):

Well, I wished I had come out earlier, but it was complicated by the fact that my friend Gerry Studds had to come out. I probably should have. I wish I could have done that a couple years earlier.

Robert Kaiser (01:19:40):

When did he–

Barney Frank (01:19:42):

Well, he got caught in ‘83. So he had to go through the ‘84 election and I didn’t want to do it the next year with the very next election. I, there were a couple of votes I wish I had back. I tell you the one the vote, I think now was the biggest mistake, was voting against – I should have told it to Meachum – was George H.W. Bush’s intervention in Kuwait. I was afraid that he was going to do in Kuwait what they did in Iraq, which is to go too far. But I do think it was, it was surgical when they got this terrible man out of Kuwait and that was useful. Other than that, I cast one kind of demagogic vote on the IRS, something I wish I had back. But no, I don’t. I don’t think, I can’t think of anything I would’ve done very differently or differently at all.

Robert Kaiser (01:20:39):

Well, we are in …. Typically, as always almost, we’ve ignored the greatest abdication of congressional power of any of our lifetimes: the power to declare war. Which has gotten us into more trouble and more expense and more tsuris as we say, in Yiddish.

Barney Frank (01:21:03):

Actually encouraging what they just did, and give Sanders credit for that. He spurred it to do it with the Yemen [inaudible]. But by the way, Bob is right about that. But the reason is very simple. There is no history of executive overreach and war making. There is a very clear history of congressional ducking of responsibility. Congress has been very happy to let the president do that and then complain.

Robert Kaiser (01:21:29):

Of course.

Barney Frank (01:21:30):

And finally on Yemen, it’s the first time that they did speak out, but, but it is true and it’s a big, big problem. And Obama was guilty there as well. They took the AUF, the Authorization of the Use of Force that we passed after the 9/11, to authorize going into Afghanistan. And they’ve used that shamelessly way beyond that, including Obama. On the other hand, in fairness to Obama, when he did try, in fact, to take Congress into account – and I was appalled by this – when he said that the chemical attack by Syria would be a red line and then he didn’t go forward. He asked Congress for the authority to do that, and they turned him down, and he was then denounced for abiding by the congressional refusal, including by liberals in the New York Times. That was appalling.

Craig Volden (01:22:28):

Thank you both very much.

Alan Wiseman (01:22:29):

Thank you.

Craig Volden (01:22:29):

We appreciate it.

Barney Frank (01:22:30):

It was fun.

Alan Wiseman (01:22:31):

This is wonderful.


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