WATERVILLE – When U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, a Democrat from Massachusetts, retired in January, he cited the difficulty of getting things done in Washington as a reason for not seeking re-election.
He called it gridlock.
On Sunday evening, Frank, who served for 16 terms as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from the 4th District of Massachusetts, revisited the issue of gridlock in Congress in the annual Government Department lecture at Colby College.
“The government is what we call ourselves when we agree to work together,” Frank, 73, told a packed house at the Goldfarb Center in Colby’s Diamond building. “The major cause of dysfunction in American government today is not structural; it is the takeover of the Republican Party by extreme right-wing people.”
This was not a coup, Frank said. Nobody pulled a gun. It was the success of the tea party and other political extremists who do not believe in government at all, he said.
Frank said the power the Republican right wing wields has resulted in filibusters that cripple debate on issues, including background checks for potential gun buyers.
When George W. Bush was president, both parties worked together, Frank said, but when Barack Obama took the oath of office on Jan. 20, 2009, the right wing of the Republican Party said its main goal was to defeat him and not to help the struggling economy.
“The political fight now is over where you draw the line between the political sector and the private sector,” he said. “Today the Republican Party is run by people who don’t believe in government, don’t understand its vital function.”
Frank said that when Bush was in office, the president enjoyed much more cooperation from the opposition party than Obama now has. That was not because Democrats are nicer people, he said. It was because of their belief in government. Sure, he said, Democrats will fight Republicans in elections, but at the end of the day, it is the cooperation the party engenders that saves the day.
“Even when there’s a Republican president and we hope he is defeated, we have a conviction that a functioning government is important for the public good,” Frank said.
“The Republicans who have obstructed Barack Obama, they genuinely believe that less government is almost always better. We Democrats could not root for the government to fail — we might root for the other party to fail, but not the government.”
Partisanship in American government is not the problem, Frank said. Extreme partisanship is the problem. The most important dynamic in U.S. government is the struggle within the Republican Party between the mainstream conservatives and extremists, he said.
“The answer to our current gridlock is not structural, it is political,” he said. “People have to stop voting for extremists, and we can go back to the legitimate fighting and debating that we need.”
Doug Harlow can be contacted at 612-2367 or at: