In his five years in the U.S. Senate, Al Franken has become the poster child for a do-nothing, superpartisan Congress, says his opponent, Republican Mike McFadden. Franken, a Democrat, says he has voted Minnesotans’ interests and been an effective advocate for improving the lot of the middle class, often while working across party lines.
Getting a real read on Franken’s record — or any senator’s record — isn’t easy, said Steve Smith, professor of social sciences and political science at Washington University in St. Louis.
“This is probably a more difficult time to evaluate a legislative record in the Senate than I’ve seen in 50 years. The total output of the Congress is so exceptionally low, because of the deep divide between the House and the Senate, that the leaders of both parties — let alone rank-and-file members like Franken — have largely given up on pressing forward with major legislation.”
If you look strictly at the bills Franken has sponsored and his success turning them into law, he doesn’t stack up well with his fellow first-term Democrats.
All seven of them sponsored more legislation and all except one, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, had at least one bill signed into law.
Franken’s legislative output comes to 141 pieces of legislation — 85 bills, 47 amendments and nine resolutions — according to Congress.gov. Most of his proposals dealt with education and health. None of his bills became law.
But Franken says his effectiveness has come in putting forward bills or amendments that might not survive on their own but are added to larger bills that become law.
“I think that sometimes you can get a provision in a bill that has tremendous effect,” he said.
The prime example is a bill he introduced in September 2009 requiring at least 90 percent of health insurance premiums to be spent on claims and improving the quality of care. That provision, with a slightly lower percentage, was incorporated into the Affordable Care Act.
This was the signature achievement of his term, said Kathryn Pearson, an associate professor of political science at the University of Minnesota.
“Having a major piece of legislation in the (Affordable Care Act) is a significant accomplishment and especially at the time for a first-term senator,” she said.
Franken got a national diabetes prevention program into the ACA as well.
And included in the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act were two provisions he authored — one to ensure victims don’t have to pay for rape kits and another to prevent housing discrimination against domestic-violence victims.
The first initiative he sponsored that made it into law was an amendment in July 2009 to establish a pilot program using service dogs to assist disabled veterans.
Franken also co-wrote the energy section of the farm bill and helped secure $55 million in grant money for mental health services in schools.
In July 2013, he sponsored the “Community College to Career Fund Act.” Provisions engaging community and technical colleges in workforce development, which he says were embraced by members of both parties, were reflected a year later in a law signed by President Barack Obama.
“My basic focus is on improving people’s lives,” said Franken, who often talks about growing up middle class in St. Louis Park.
McFadden has a different way of describing Franken’s time in D.C.: Voted with the president 97 percent of the time; most partisan Senate Democrat; most likely to vote with his party.
Even in a partisan institution, “he’s extreme. He’s hyperpartisan,” said McFadden.
The National Journal ranked Franken tied for fifth most liberal member of the Senate in 2013. Contrast that with one of McFadden’s role models, Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who was No. 13 on the list of most conservative senators.
The standard story on Franken is that he shed the fiery, biting persona he had as a liberal author and radio host when he entered the Senate and put his head down to study and work. McFadden says that’s just more show-business spin.
“A tiger doesn’t change their stripes,” he said. “He’s got this record of being hyperpartisan before he came to the Senate, and now he’s trying to manufacture and manipulate the Minnesota public to believe that he’s been some sort of statesman. He hasn’t.”
The problem with Franken’s approach, he said, is that it limits what he’s able to accomplish. Part of that is the partisanship and part of it is personality.
“He’s not been able to build relationships,” McFadden said.
Pearson said it’s true that Franken lines up with Obama and the Democrats almost all the time if you look at his floor voting record, but she said that’s the case for most senators and also doesn’t include Franken’s efforts at earlier stages of the legislative process.
“The Senate’s so polarized that it’s just hard to say that Franken really stands out,” Smith said. “To argue that he’s maybe the most liberal, or he has the highest party loyalty score, this is within just a vote or two.”
Smith said Franken makes a credible case that he has advanced initiatives on a variety of fronts and been able to get some into law.
“He’s certainly as active as any senator at making the case for a wide range of legislation,” he said. “He is considered by his colleagues to be a very serious legislator who does his homework. He picks his spots with some care and then masters a subject, and his effectiveness comes from his persuasiveness.”
McFadden said Franken’s contributions are overrated.
Franken takes credit for helping write the farm bill, which McFadden calls “a case study of how dysfunctional Washington is. It took three years to get a new five-year farm bill. It was supposed to be passed in 2012. Didn’t happen, they kicked the can to 2013. Didn’t happen, they kicked the can to 2014.”
And McFadden maintains that because of the delay in seating Franken after the protracted recount in his race against Norm Coleman, Franken deserves to be tagged as “the 60th and deciding vote” for the Affordable Care Act.
Smith and Pearson say it would be equally true to label any of the 60 yes votes as the deciding one, given that Franken never hid his support for the bill and didn’t cut a last-minute deal to secure his vote, as others did.
“If there’s three, four, five, six senators that want to take the mantle as the 60th and deciding vote, they can all share it,” McFadden said.
Franken acknowledges there have been problems with the Affordable Care Act but that repealing it, as McFadden proposes, would forfeit all the benefits and send the issue back into the polarized Congress.
Obama is seen as a liability on the campaign trail for Democrats, but Franken says he has not asked the president to stay away.
When Obama visited this summer, Franken attended a workforce-training event with him but did not appear with the president at his big public event at Lake Harriet in Minneapolis. By contrast, he did attend a public rally last week at the University of Minnesota with former President Bill Clinton.
McFadden said Franken has been anything but an advocate for the middle class, largely because he hasn’t done enough to facilitate greater energy independence for the United States.
Take his vote in March 2012 against an amendment that would have authorized the Keystone Pipeline project to proceed without further environmental review, McFadden said. Franken voted on a separate measure to let the pipeline review continue according to current law.
Greater energy independence will drive down costs and create jobs, McFadden said.
“That’s how you help the middle class. He’s been an absolute enemy to any nonrenewable energy source, which causes heating bills to go up, gasoline prices to go up, makes us less competitive on the world stage with jobs.”
Franken, who chairs the energy subcommittee of the Energy and Natural Resources committee, says in the short term the U.S. will need a mixed portfolio of energy that includes fossil fuels, but that he wants to emphasize research and development of renewable energies and efficiency.
He says his focus if he gets a second term will be “making sure that we build the middle class, because I think our economy does better when people in the middle are doing better.”
He talks about infusing science and technology into the K-12 curriculum, pushing to allow people to refinance their student loans, advocating for a fairer tax system, and intensifying the health care delivery reform that Minnesota excels at.
“I want kids to get the chance to do what they want to do and have meaningful work and be able to put a roof over their family’s head and food on the table and be able to have a couple of vacations during the year and feel like their kids are going to do better than they did and make sure their kids have access to health care,” he said. “And that there is a path, there is a path to a good, solid middle-class life.”
One interesting thing to watch, Smith said, is how Franken, who has always served in a Democratic-majority Senate, would do if Republicans took over.
“Is he the kind of senator who could work with a Republican majority? Does he have the personal relations and skills to work across party lines? And the truth is that’s a big unknown.”
Doug Belden can be reached at 651-228-5136.
Follow him at twitter.com/dbeldenpipress.
FRANKEN ON THE SENATE FLOOR
— Dec. 18, 2010, on “Net neutrality”:
“Put simply, it is the idea that big corporations shouldn’t be able to decide who wins or loses on the Internet. It is the idea that the Internet should be a level playing field for everyone, from a blogger to a media conglomerate, from a small businessperson to a powerful corporation. I believe that net neutrality is the free speech issue of our time.”
— July 25, 2013, on credit rating agencies:
“The credit raters are still influenced by the relationships with the banks because that is who pays them. It is a clear conflict of interest, and we need to prioritize actions that will prevent another meltdown in the future. … I will continue to pursue this issue until the SEC fulfills its directive to address the conflicts of interest in the credit rating industry.”
— Nov. 13, 2013, on Drug Quality and Security Act
“There is no possible explanation that can justify the fact that more than 17,000 vials of contaminated medicine were shipped to providers throughout the country. That should simply not be happening. That is why the legislation we are set to pass, which I helped to write, is so important. It will go a long way toward making compounded medication safer and preventing another outbreak like the one we had a little over a year ago.”
— Sept. 9, 2014, on Citizens United decision:
“Madam President, I will just come out and say it. Citizens United was one of the worst decisions in the history of the Supreme Court. It was a disaster, a radical exercise of pro-corporate judicial activism. It was seriously flawed both legally and factually. … Here is how it works: If you have millions of dollars you want to spend, you can funnel it through back channels so that it ends up in the hands of a group. … They use this money to buy ads and very often without disclosing the source of their funds. To me, this whole thing looks a lot like money laundering, except now it is perfectly legal.”
FRANKEN’S COMMITTEE ASSIGNMENTS
— Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Subcommittees: Employment and Workplace Safety; Children and Families
— Judiciary. Subcommittees: Privacy, Technology and the Law (chairman); Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights; Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights; Bankruptcy and the Courts
— Indian Affairs
— Energy and Natural Resources. Subcommittees: Energy (chairman); Public Lands, Forests and Mining; Water and Power.
Sens. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerDems ponder gender politics of 2020 nomineeSenate rejects centrist immigration bill after Trump veto threatSen. Gillibrand, eyeing 2020 bid, rankles some DemocratsMORE (D-N.J.) and Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisCongress fails miserably: For Asian-Americans, immigration proposals are personal attacksAmerican women will decide who wins and loses in 2018 electionsDems ponder gender politics of 2020 nomineeMORE (D-Calif.) were appointed to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, making them the first African-American members of the panel since the 1990s.
Harris, the second African-American woman elected to the Senate, also becomes the second black woman to serve on the powerful Judiciary panel.
Thrilled to share that I've been appointed to the Senate Judiciary Committee. You have my commitment that I will fight for justice on behalf of Californians and all Americans.— Kamala Harris (@SenKamalaHarris) January 9, 2018
Former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (D-Ill.) sat on the Judiciary Committee in the 1990s. Booker will be the first black man to serve on the committee.
“The Trump administration has repeatedly demonstrated its hostility to the ideals of civil rights and equal justice for all. As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I will make it my mission to check and balance President TrumpDonald John TrumpAccuser says Trump should be afraid of the truthWoman behind pro-Trump Facebook page denies being influenced by RussiansShulkin says he has White House approval to root out 'subversion' at VAMORE and Attorney General Sessions,” Booker said in a statement.
Excited to join the Judiciary Committee. It'll be my mission to check awful actions by Trump & Sessions; keep working to advance the cause of reforming our broken justice system; and to bend the arc of history closer toward equal justice for all. https://t.co/dvq4vdTkQa— Cory Booker (@CoryBooker) January 9, 2018
Booker testified against Sessions's nomination last year, the first time a sitting senator has testified against another sitting senator chosen for a Cabinet post.
Booker previously worked as a tenant lawyer, and served as a city council member and Newark mayor before his election to the Senate in 2013. Harris previously served as California's attorney general before joining the Senate. Both Democrats are viewed as potential 2020 presidential contenders.
The Judiciary Committee, which deals with nominations to the judiciary and Justice Department, is one of multiple congressional committees conducting separate investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.
Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerDemocrats now attack internet rules they once embracedSchumer: Trump budget would ‘cripple’ gun background checksSchumer: Senate Republicans' silence 'deafening' on guns, RussiaMORE (D-N.Y.) announced new committee assignments for some party members after former Sen. Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenShould the Rob Porter outcome set the standard?Grassley, Dems step up battle over judicial nomineesSen. Gillibrand, eyeing 2020 bid, rankles some DemocratsMORE (D-Minn) officially resigned last week, and new Alabama Sen. Doug Jones (D) was sworn in.
Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Rep. Cedric RichmondCedric Levon RichmondDemocrats propose .7 billion in grants for election securityHouse Dem opposition mounts to budget dealBlack Dems take lead in push to impeach TrumpMORE (D-La.) praised the new appointments, saying he urged Schumer to appoint a member of the caucus to replace Franken on the Judiciary Committee.
“The Congressional Black Caucus could not be more proud of both of our Senate members and know the experience and expertise they bring to the Committee will be beneficial for all Americans, especially those disproportionately targeted by the criminal justice system,” Richmond said in a statement.
The addition of Jones and Sen. Tina SmithTina Flint SmithWith vote against Brownback, Democrats abandon religious freedomBachmann won't run for Franken's Senate seat because she did not hear a 'call from God'Senate confirms Trump nominee despite missing 'blue slip'MORE (D-Minn.), Franken’s replacement, shrinks the Republican advantage on the Juciicary Committee and Finance Committee to one seat each.