Barney Frank on the Death of Bipartisanship

“Bipartisanship ended in America, dysfunction appeared in America, on one day—January 20, 2009,” said Barney Frank, former Democratic congressman from Massachusetts.

At the Government Department’s annual Goldfarb Lecture April 21, Frank detailed the inability of Democrats and Republicans to work together. Gridlock, he argued, is a relatively new phenomenon.

In 2007 the Democrats controlled the House with a Republican president. Compromise did, in fact, exist. “Generally the party that doesn’t hold the presidency does better when things are going bad,” he said. So even though it would have been more politically advantageous to Democrats to stall or delay the Economic Recovery Act, “Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid negotiated with George Bush and gave him an economic stimulus to keep the economy from getting worse in 2008, in a presidential election year, in a way that was compatible with their social goals.”

With the election of Barack Obama, compromise evaporated. Frank described how, in his view, Republicans began to stop, stall, or kill Democrat-initiated bills. He quoted Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate Minority leader, who said, “My number one goal is to defeat this president.” When Republicans took control of the House in 2011, partisanship only got worse, Frank said.

The primary reason for conflict, he said, is that “the Republicans who have obstructed Barack Obama legitimately believe … that less government is almost always better. With every proposal to add programs or increase the influence of the government, Republicans push back harder.”

But consensus does not exist within the Republican party. “The most important dynamic now going on in the United States politically is the struggle within the Republican party—within the mainstream conservatives and the more extreme conservatives,” Frank said.

Frank urged the crowd to stop thinking of government as separate from the American people. “Government is what we call ourselves when we decide to work together to achieve some common purposes.”

“Partisanship is not the problem,” he said. “Excessive partisanship is.”

—Kayla Lewkowicz ’14

Alan Simpson on Fiscal Irresponsibility

Former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson, a Republican who was invited by George J. Mitchell (a Democrat), combined a gloomy message with his signature humor to engage a packed Ostrove Auditorium for the George J. Mitchell International Distinguished Lecture April 10.

Simpson, a senator until 1997, later co-chaired the Simpson-Bowles Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform at the request of President Obama.

“Erskine and I really say, ‘Pull up a chair.’ We don’t do BS or mush, and we’ll tell you where your country is,” he said. “We borrow three billion, six hundred million bucks a day. And we’ll do that tomorrow and we did it yesterday.”

He invoked the big bang theory of the universe—which happened roughly 13 billion years ago—to put the $16.7 trillion national debt into perspective. “That’s the planets, the sun, the moon,” he said. “That isn’t even close to a trillion, and we owe sixteen point seven of those babies. That’s how big this thing is.”

So big, he said, that increasing taxes and decreasing spending can’t solve the problem. Major reforms need to be made. He railed against military contractors, against special interest groups like the AARP, and against special health-care benefits and schools for members of the military and their families.

Other areas in need of major reform? Health care, tax expenditures like the home mortgage deduction, and Social Security, which he said was never intended to fund retirement. (In fact, he said, when Social Security was set up with a retirement age of 65, the life expectancy was 63. “You can’t beat that kind of logic.”)

Simpson praised Obama for, that very day, proposing a chained Consumer Price Index (CPI). He suggested eliminating tax expenditures, which benefit the small portion of taxpayers who itemize, and creating a simple tax structure with percentage of tax based on income. 

With his background, Simpson represented across-the-aisle governing to hundreds of community members and students. He reminded the audience that this country has been through bigger battles and come out strong, and he spoke in favor of politicians identifying as American, not Democrat or Republican, first.