Described by his former colleague, U.S. Rep. John B. Larson, as a person with a wit “quicker than Jon Stewart,” a former Massachusetts Congressman told the faculty at Goodwin College on Wednesday about a seismic shift in American life, as chronicled in his recent memoir.
Former U.S. Rep. Barney Frank told the crowd that he had been nervous about entering politics because he knew he was gay when he was 13 years old. And being gay in 1954 was not popular.
“I knew being in government was the way to get things done to improve society, but here was the conflict. In 1954, being homosexual was one of the most unpopular things that can happen,” Frank said. “I want to be in government to change things, but you’ve got to be popular to be in government.”
“Spoiler alert,” Frank said. “How do I overcome the unpopularity of being gay so I can join this popular institution called government and get things done?” He won his election in 1980 with 52 percent of the vote and he came out of the so-called closet in 1987 and ended up serving 25 more years.
By the time he left Congress in 2012, after 32 years, the order of popularity of being in government and being gay had reversed. He said being gay is now more popular than being in government.
Frank said in 2012 there was a poll that showed him marrying his husband, Jim, was more popular than his chairmanship of the committee that produced the financial reform bill. He said that’s not good news for former U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd. He joked that Jim ended up being more popular than Dodd.
Asked what he thought about the implementation of the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation, Frank said he expects that it will survive if a Democratic president is elected in 2016.
The two agencies that do derivative regulation, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, have been starved for funding by Congress.
“We did not foresee that the Republicans would take over the House in 2010,” Frank said.
He said Republicans realized repealing the bill would have been unpopular so they decided not to fully fund those two agencies.
However, Frank said he believes the legislation is being “administered in a generally reasonable way.”
But in 2016, “if the Republicans win the presidency, the House and the Senate they will begin to chip away at it, but more importantly they won’t have to because they will appoint people who will not use the powers you give them.”
He quipped that “if a Democrat is elected president, then she [Hillary Clinton] will be able to preserve that law.”
But back to that seismic shift in American life.
Frank said he’s frustrated by the anti-government movement in this country.
“There are people who could economically benefit from various government programs, particularly working class people,” Frank said. But they continue to vote for politicians who promise to reduce funding for those government programs because their economic position has eroded and they are angry.
“The vicious cycle is that people get so angry at government for failing to help them economically that they vote for people who won’t want to help them economically,” Frank said. “I want to break out of that vicious cycle.”
He said there are programs that would benefit the working class and would be popular, but the problem is there’s no money anymore.
He said if they could just free up money at the state and federal level and put it into programs that would help diminish economic inequality, “they would be popular and remind people that government can be a positive force in their life.”
He said people, to some extent, still understand that government isn’t all bad. He said the Veterans Administration is one example.
“You know what medical care is at the Department of Veterans Affairs? It’s socialized medicine,” Frank said.
He said it’s not that people don’t like it. It’s that they didn’t like having to wait in line because Congress didn’t fund it properly.
“Not that the quality once delivered was wrong, but that it took too long to get it,” Frank said.
Frank said the government could save money by not prosecuting people for recreational drug use.
“This war on drugs has been socially destructive,” Frank said. “It is also the place in America where racism is everywhere.”
Frank also suggested that Congress could find money by limiting defense spending and coming to the realization that America can’t fix everything that’s wrong in other countries.
“You cannot expect us to take first place in solving every problem, everywhere in the world,” Frank said.