First, a comment on Rep. Barney Frank, whose retirement from the House will cause mourning among all in the Congress-watcher and Congress-lover fraternity.
Of course, a part of the dismay will come from the loss of the Massachusetts Democrat’s wit and personality. But the larger part will come from the loss of one of Congress’ great legislators. I am biased to some degree because he has been my friend for many years (although I, like everyone else who knows him, have been subject to his acerbic side).
But it is impossible not to acknowledge that Frank has been a model legislator to the core, using his formidable intelligence, his ability to attract first-rate staff, his combination of deep philosophical beliefs and pragmatism, his understanding of policy and politics and his command on the floor to have a profound effect on policy and society.
It is difficult to stand out as one of 435 of anything — and that is even more true in a cacophonous place such as the House, which is filled with big personalities. Some stand out just by saying outrageous or over-the-line things, which is now, sadly, a surefire way to raise big bucks and even become a presidential candidate. But few truly stand out, becoming forces inside Congress and outside because of their ideas and their legislative talents. For decades, Frank has been in that small category, and his departure from the House will leave a big void.
The news about Frank took attention away for a bit from the failure of the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction and the agenda ahead for the remainder of the year. The super committee’s inability to reach any agreement was shrugged off by most observers as the expected outcome, and it was, but I was deeply disappointed nonetheless.
If its creation was in and of itself a sign of failure in the regular order, its extraordinary powers gave it a unique chance to accomplish big things in the face of our deep dysfunction. No panel in Congress has ever had the ability to craft a proposal of any magnitude it desires and get guaranteed up-or-down votes without amendment or delay in both chambers.
The opportunity — and the template — was there to craft the grand bargain that every bipartisan group had recommended. There were four months to take Simpson-Bowles, Rivlin-Domenici and the “gang of six” plans and meld them into one, adding as much as $4 trillion in deficit reduction over 10 years with $1 trillion to $1.5 trillion in revenue increases, coupled with tax reform and about $1 trillion from reducing the growth path of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security added to the nearly $1 trillion already agreed to as part of the debt limit plan. Add in some savings from winding down U.S. participation in the Iraq and Afghan wars and voilà.