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In Conversation: Barney Frank

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BF: I have said publicly on several occasions, politicians make mistakes, journalists make mistakes, and the public is no bargain either. Yeah, I get frustrated.

But some people in the media act like Washington is some autonomous entity that’s operating with no connection to the public. I had a woman stop me the other day, she said, “I’m very angry about Congress. What are you guys doing?” I said, “Who’s your Congressman?” “Oh, I don’t know.” “Well, see, I vote for me, I’m happy with me. What are you blaming me for the people you vote for?”

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Interview with Barney Frank, by telephone, March 14, 2012

JZ: What did you think about Olympia Snowe’s decision not to run for reelection:

BF: It was confirmation of the death grip the right wing has on the Republican Party. Olympia was obviously just facing this terrible dilemma where she, to stave off a primary challenge and be able to function within her party, she had to move further and further to the right. She was featured actually, just before that, in a New York Times story, as a senator who’s moved considerably to the right. But it was never far enough. She was the only Republican to vote against that restriction on contraception being available through health insurance.

JZ: Did you feel that she was a useful centrist to have in Washington?

BF: Decreasingly, because the Republican Party has become so hard. She was a key vote for us on financial reform but the price of her support, Susan Collins’s and Scott Brown’s, was that we had to take $20 billion off the backs of the financial institutions, where we wanted to put it, and put it on the tax payers. The question, as between her and a right-wing Republican, she was a better. But given the pressures on Republicans these days, I don’t envy her personally but I am pleased that she retired, because I think her successor will be Angus King, who will vote with the Democrats much more. I don’t think it is possible in the current climate for a moderate Republican to be very productive on the causes I care about.

JZ: You mentioned financial reform. Dodd-Frank gets kicked around a lot by both liberals and conservatives. Are you happy with the way it turned out?

BF: Oh absolutely. Most of the critics, well the conservatives are just right-wingers who don’t want any regulation. And if you listen to some of the liberals they understand what a good job we did. I mean have you heard people complaining about the consumer bureau?

JZ: Well, conservatives.

BF: Well, yeah. But with liberals, much of it is kind of uninformed and I believe among the people who know what we’ve done there’s great support.

JZ: No legislation can be perfect and you mentioned the price of getting Snowe’s and Collins’s and Brown’s support for it.

BF: Yeah, $20 billion.

JZ: Right. Is there an ideal version of the legislation that exists in your head?

BF: I would have toughened up the derivatives stuff a little bit. We did major, major advances. For instance, on derivatives there’s anti-speculation stuff that’s now being fought. The one thing I would have done if I could just waive a magic wand, I would have done, and it has to do with derivatives, I would have merged the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, but there’s just never any chance of doing that because they represent the farmers versus the financial markets. Other than that, I would have given the CFTC a little more authority on derivatives but generally it’s where I wanted it to be.

JZ: At what point in time do you think we’re going to be able to give it a full assessment?

BF: I’d say over the next five years, because it has to be implemented. And it will depend. If the Republicans win the presidency and or both Houses of Congress, then it will never get a fair chance, but it’s already had I think very positive impacts.

JZ: On Freddie and Fannie, people say you were wrong about those. Do you accept that criticism?

BF: No! For this reason. Yes I was wrong in 2003, but I wasn’t in charge. That is the most intellectually dishonest argument from Republicans. Remember, I was in the minority from 1995 to 2006. They were in charge. The argument appears that I stopped Tom DeLay from doing something. And by the way I changed my position in 2004. I was too optimistic in 2003, but also, and I’m frankly surprised people don’t do any research on this, if you read Hank Paulson’s book, I became chairman of the committee in 2007. The first thing we did was to pass tough legislation restricting Fannie and Freddie. It’s as a result of the legislation that was passed after I became chairman that they were put in a conservatorship and haven’t lost any money since 2008. See, I was wrong about it with a lot of other people but it had no impact. I was not the one who held up the regulation. In fact, in 2004, several of us on the Democratic side tried to ban the bad subprime loans, and the Republicans blocked us. This is all on their watch.


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