Barney Frank Had the Right Career

In the wake of Barney Frank’s announced retirement, I’m seeing a lot of suggestions that are based, I think, on misunderstandings of Frank’s strengths and of the various different skills needed for different roles. So: we have Tim Noah suggesting Frank for Secretary of Treasury; Andrew Sullivan said that “He should have been Speaker, and in a less homophobic world, he would have been”; and apparently someone today suggested he should be HUD Secretary, which he shot down.

I’m probably as big a fan of Frank as anyone, but I think all of this is mistaken for two reasons. First, because his skills were not a good match for those jobs…among other things, you really can’t have a Treasury Secretary who is always shooting off his mouth. House leadership? Again, message discipline, rather than rhetorical cleverness, is what’s called for in these jobs. Also, I really have no idea how well Frank is suited for running a bureaucracy (as he would be doing at Treasury) or at the kinds of partisan organizing that party leadership is responsible for. What Frank has demonstrated he’s good at is legislating, and at speaking forcefully about liberal ideas and specific issues and programs. Those are important skills, but they’re the skills of, well, a legislator, as he basically said in yesterday’s announcement. As far as I know, the best Speakers of the modern era, Tip O’Neill and Nancy Pelosi, didn’t particularly have those skills; for that matter, neither does the current Speaker, John Boehner, who as I’ve said seems to be pretty good at the job.

And as I sort of said yesterday, and this is the second reason: being a legislator is a big deal. Being an effective committee chair, and before that (pre-1995) a subcommittee chair, is important. There’s a tendency that I hear a lot of that the actual important Members of Congress are the ones in the leadership, and no one else really matters much. That’s completely wrong in the Senate, and it’s mostly wrong in the House. Now, it is true that in the minority party there’s very little to be done, but majority-party chairs and subcommittee chairs really do matter. And not all of them are good, by any means, and so it makes quite a bit of difference to the government and the nation to have serious, effective legislators in those positions.

When Congress works well (and in many ways it did during the 111th), it’s not just about party leaders; it really takes a lot of Members, in both Houses, with various areas of expertise and lots of legislative skill.

Barney Frank should absolutely be celebrated. Not as a great political talent who might have been or should have been, but as he actually was: a terrific Member of Congress.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.