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Los Angeles Times Interveiw

Barney Frank

Partisan and Proud of It, a Liberal Revels in the Fray

April 04, 1999|Janet Hook | Janet Hook covers Congress for The Times

WASHINGTON — Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) is partisan and proud of it. One of the House's most sharp-tongued, brainy liberals, Frank gladly mounts the barricades for a host of Democratic causes, including his party's recent effort to keep President Bill Clinton from being impeached.

But he has not always been on Clinton's side of Washington's policy wars. A committed liberal, Frank has repeatedly been at odds with the president who has led his party steadily to the center. When Clinton in 1997 supported a budget-balancing law that included social-program cuts Frank considered regressive, the Massachusetts Democrat pulled no punches. "We addressed a letter to the Democratic president of the United States and it came back 'addressee unknown,' " Frank said at the time.

That zinger was vintage Frank. He's a fast-talking politician, a master of the scathing one-liner. His fearsome debating skills were on display for a national audience during the House's televised impeachment proceedings last year.

As a member of the House Judiciary Committee, Frank led the Democratic campaign to portray the entire impeachment proceeding as a partisan witch hunt. Though he criticized Clinton for his relationship with a White House intern, Frank ridiculed Republicans' perjury charges against him. He said the case boiled down to this question: "What did he touch and when did he touch it?" Defending Clinton over the last 12 months has been something of a family affair for Frank. His sister, Ann Lewis, is White House communications director.

Frank, 59, is one of only three openly gay members of Congress. He was first elected to Congress in 1980 and has been reelected six times since he came out of the closet in 1987.

In the course of the impeachment debate, Frank brought up a subject that he has spent years trying to put behind him: the ethics investigation that ended up with Frank being reprimanded by the House in 1990 on charges stemming from his relationship with a male prostitute. He cited the experience to refute Republicans who said a mere censure of Clinton would carry no weight. "I would tell you that having been reprimanded by this House of Representatives, where I'm so proud to serve, was no triviality," he said. "I wish I could go back and undo it."

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Question: There has been a lot of talk around Washington about the need for more bipartisanship and for the two parties to come together on major policy issues in the wake of impeachment. But you seem to suggest partisanship is not all bad.

Answer: Not at all. The first thing people have to understand is nobody in America decided there should be a party, or two parties. There's been this natural tendency [to divide into political parties] throughout American history. . . .

America has tended to have, for most of its time, a more activist party with regard to the government and a party that wanted to do less. But that's what we have. The notion that it's somehow wrong for people's fundamental philosophical underpinnings to influence your policy, I don't understand. . . . You should not artificially inject reasons to disagree. But neither is it . . . a bad thing when there are fundamental disagreements.

In fact, what usually happens is there are agreements on sort of second- and third-level issues, where there's not a lot of ideology written. In the midst of all the Judiciary [Committee] anger and disagreement [over impeachment] we passed a very good intellectual-property bill. Very important to Los Angeles and Hollywood. . . . A group of us who were fairly ideologically split up put together this package that defined penalties for copyright violations, and the Motion Picture Assn. of America, publishers and the recording industry as the copyright holders were involved, and the software people, hardware manufacturers, and it worked very well.

But, basically, partisanship is essential to running the country. . . . Ultimately, these questions should be decided by the voters. And the notion that the voters should elect people who should then go to Washington and compromise and never bring differences back to the voters is a very bad idea. Elections ought to be about the fundamental issues. . . .

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Q: Give us some recent examples of what you consider healthy partisanship.

A: Recently, in the Judiciary Committee and [then] in the Banking Committee, we had very serious debates. . . . The Republicans presented their majority views on the president's budget, and they said that they didn't see a case yet for increasing the budget of the Civil Rights Commission and the [Justice Department's] Civil Rights Division on enforcement. There was a major partisan debate at which the Democrats said, "Yes, there is." There's a lot of racism in this country. We had the cops shooting the guy in New York. It was a very partisan debate. . . .

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