Al Franken Gets Serious
Hirsh, Michael, Newsweek
Byline: Michael Hirsh
The funnyman turned freshman senator has quietly made himself a force to be reckoned with in Washington.
You could almost imagine it as a Saturday Night Live routine. Open with a shot of the U.S. Capitol. A senator is droning on about some horribly boring subject. Cut to Al Franken sitting in the Senate chairman's seat, gavel in hand. Antics ensue. It could be a funny skit, except that for the past year, Al Franken actually has been spending a lot of time in the Senate chairman's seat--off the air, avoiding jokes, studying the job of senator and his new colleagues as they take their turns on the floor.
And to the amazement of many, the freshman senator from Minnesota--apart from Scott Brown of Massachusetts, he's the rawest rookie on the Hill--has begun to have a serious impact. Franken has pushed through major amendments to two of the biggest bills in decades, health care and financial reform. Just as notably, he has mustered the kind of bipartisan support that no one thought possible for the ultraliberal author of Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot, his 1996 book. "I spent hours in the chair," Franken told NEWSWEEK, presiding over dreary speeches. "You have no choice when you're a freshman?.?.?.?But the thing about it is, instead of using the time to write thank-you notes, I pay close attention to what's going on."
Franken was paying attention in May, when the Senate was on the verge of passing the biggest financial-reform bill since the 1930s. No one, he thought, was taking a serious look at the credit-rating agencies, mainly Moody's and Standard & Poor's. The agencies had given solid "investment" ratings to hundreds of billions of dollars in bad securities based on junky subprime mortgages, helping to precipitate the financial crisis. In the opinion of many experts, that was no accident: the ratings agencies are paid by the investment banks whose securities they judge, a seeming conflict of interest. Building on an earlier proposal from California Rep. Brad Sherman, Franken came up with the idea of creating an intermediary board that would deal with the conflict of interest by rotating credit rating agencies among firms issuing securities.
A career comedy writer who is sarcastic by nature, Franken had already had a few public run-ins with GOP senators. But he decided to confine himself to speechifying soberly in the Senate about his new amendment. "I decided I needed to go on the floor and talk about it as much as possible. I think on the second day, Roger Wicker [R-Miss.], who was next to speak, heard me. He said, 'Gee, that sounds like a good idea.'?" Soon Franken had Wicker and 63 other votes--including 11 Republicans--in favor of his amendment.
What happened to Franken's amendment after that, however, raises larger questions about the effectiveness of the financial-reform bill--a dense, 2,000-page behemoth that critics say is riddled with loopholes and exemptions. Sen. Chris Dodd and Rep. Barney Frank, the Democratic leaders on the bill, decided the Franken amendment was a tad too -- bold. Dodd said he wanted two years to study the matter, creating another in a total of 47 studies and 74 reports authorized by the bill, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. (The financial industry had pleaded for more time to change its practices.) Franken says he was baffled by the opposition from his own party. "I could never quite figure it out," he said. "It was weird. Dodd gave a speech and said, 'What Al's done is great. This is a terrific idea -- But I think it could have unintended consequences. …