Easthampton, MA I didn’t like paying for the privilege but the chance to hear Congressman and House Financial Services Committee Chair Barney Frank pontificate to the faithful at the annual dinner of several small town committees in the Democratic Party heartland of Western Massachusetts was too good to miss. I also wrongly thought that this might be a small affair of 30-50 folks giving me a chance to actually pull the Congressman’s lapels and ask him to account for some of his actions recently where he has flip flopped on the Community Reinvestment Act and on how to deal with ACORN.
I was wrong! This was a tribal meeting of the faithful at the Log Cabin Restaurant where a sellout crowd that was surely 300 and perhaps 500 largely older and virtually all white folks crammed in to hear the gospel. Barney gave them a good show starting with his joke about being there with his partner and not liking the fact that he was often pilloried as a member of a discriminated against group: “partisan Democrats!” They howled. I jotted down a number of his one-liners in my program and then got out of Massachusetts without them, so I’ll save that for another day.
What interested me most as a barometer of the times was how he glossed over some issues and handled questions on others. I was interested in how he was going to advance or defend the President to the faithful here. All of this is particularly important because despite the relish he enjoys from his persona as an outside, Frank is right on the inside of all in dealing with all of the financial issues in the current meltdown.
He mentioned CRA several times and correctly argued that low and moderate income non-discriminatory lending was not a factor in the housing meltdown, which was especially interesting given yet another claim in the Wall Street Journal that day by a former government official. In his discussion of his hopes for some financial reforms in the future he didn’t mention having left CRA out of the package even as the Administration had proposed including the measure under financial consumer protection, which still seems best. In dealing with the limited and lame measures to solve the foreclosure crises, he mentioned the failure to amend the bankruptcy standards as a disappointment without any insight or confession for the faithful on how bank lobbyists had managed this unique trick in thwarting all stated Congressional intentions even while collecting a gazillion dollars in bailout monies. There’s a story here and it probably isn’t pretty, but it didn’t fit in a one-liner, so he counted on the fact that no one much was following the trail on that problem. The reforms he was proposing for the future were actually modest and drew only lukewarm applause.
When the question period finally arrived, almost all of the questions, some quite pointed were about the health care issue. One fellow asked why we couldn’t get “Medicare for all,” and Frank saw that’s going to probably take “more years than you or I have left.” Surprisingly, Frank was somewhat flatfooted on most of these questions, essentially saying that he was so busy on finance issues that he wasn’t as knowledgeable on these core concerns.
He was most unsettled when a well coifed woman asked a pointed question that implicitly insinuated that he and other Congressional representatives were getting a special deal on their insurance coverage. First, he tried to interrupt her, but she stubbornly insisted on finishing her question for whatever reason and backed him down. Then he answered that he was on Medicare and the federal government insurance identical to 3 million other federal employees, and though a great plan was not a special entitlement for the 500 odd elected representatives. He took some shots at not believing what was on the internet, and then for some reason repeated the same answer again including the defense, hardly needed among this adoring crowd, of the emergency clinic that was on the grounds and that they all paid an extra $500 or so to support. It was clear he was not used to these questions, didn’t like these questions, and for all his gruff and bluff, was as uncomfortable in the new polarized polity, as the rest of us are. Clearly the Congressmen for all of his bluff and bluster has gotten accustomed to being a character and outsider among the Wall Street and Washington crowd that daily traipses into his office, but is still trying to get a better grip at what is really happening on the grassroots.
He was whisked from the podium to the press conference. As he walked by us it was interesting to see how unlike the typical Boston area pol he seemed to be. He wasn’t working the crowd. He had given me a hello walking into the Log Cabin when we passed each other in the hallway, but watching him pass by here without shaking hands right and left was unusual.
Congressman Frank seemed an outsider here even among the faithful and an insider and defender of Washington, the Federal Reserve, and Wall Street. You figure?