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In Conversation: Barney Frank

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The alternative, people might say, is trade one for one. No, do not do quid pro quos with them. Do not have them treat you just as somebody they trade with. You’re going to need them every so often on things. Every so often you’re going to have to ask them to vote for something that wouldn’t be politically in their interest. To get them to be willing to do that, partly it’s because they have the solidarity with the party, but you want them to have this vested interest in you being good to them. And it’s not so much threatening them. Occasionally you do that, but that’s very occasional when you want it to be a good relationship. What you do is you are their servant, you are their constituent.

It’s very simple. Whenever anybody, any Democrat who’s on the committee, asks me to do something, if at all possible, I’d do it. I’d go to their districts, I’d show up at their fund-raisers, I had my picture taken with people who wanted to have their pictures taken with me, I’d support their amendments, I’d get little things for them.

JZ: And what about Republicans?

BF: Mike Oxley was chairman of that committee in 2003 until 2007. I was able to work with him. When I was the ranking member and he was the chairman, and even the chairman before that—so I was able to work with the Republicans from ’95, when they first took power, through 2007, when I became the chairman. I was able to work with Jim Leach and Mike Oxley on a lot of things, so I’d say that’s when things really changed.

When we took power, they moved very far to the right, and from the time I became chairman in 2007, it became virtually impossible to work with them. Spencer Bachus, who was the senior Republican, tried to work with me, and he almost lost his position because of it. When 2007 came, they really imposed this rigid discipline, so from 2007 on, as chairman, I was an institutionalist, but I spent almost all of my time making sure I had a majority. As I said, in 2007 and 2008, and 2009 and 2010—well, in 2009, we were doing the financial-reform bill, there were 71 members of the committee, 42 Democrats and 29 Republicans, and as I said, the last thing I thought of every night when I went to sleep was 36. Thirty-six is one more than half of 71, and I just had to keep 36 Democrats, always Democrats, never once did I have a Republican in my four years as chairman who was critical to a majority.

JZ: When you were working with Oxley and you were working with Leach, especially with Leach, since that was during a lot of the impeachment madness, was it that you had a personal relationship with these Republicans that allowed you—

BF: No. It was because they believed in governance. In Leach’s case, by the way, he started out having hearings in Whitewater, and we frustrated his hearings and they blew up in his face. George Stephanopoulos, in his autobiography, mentions the note I sent him, when they lined up all the Clinton-administration people to be grilled, and I sent him a note. It said, “Don’t worry George, we’re kicking the shit out of them.”

JZ: But you were saying they shared your view of governance—

BF: They shared my view that governance was an important factor.

JZ: An important factor, but they had a different ideology, right.

BF: And the current group does not.

JZ: So do you look across the aisle and still see people who share that—

BF: A few. But they are mostly so intimidated by the fear of losing a primary that they can’t do much. There are a couple of Republicans on the committee that I can work with, because there’s sort of independent and tough-minded. But mostly even those that would like to work with me—people ask me, “Why don’t you guys get together?” And I say, “Exactly how much would you expect me to cooperate with Michele Bachmann?” And they say, “Are you saying they’re all Michele Bachmann?” And my answer is no, they’re not all Michele Bachmann. Half of them are Michele Bachmann. The other half are afraid of losing a primary to Michele Bachmann. So, no, there are maybe three Republicans I can work with, on a couple of issues, out of the thirtysomething on the committee.

JZ: And the ones who are afraid of being primaried, who have this view of government being important but they don’t express it because they’re afraid of being primaried, why do they stick around?


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