‘DOES IT matter, in the case of Congressman Frank, what I would have preferred?” quipped Governor Patrick, after Barney Frank announced to the nation — on “Morning Joe,” no less — that he is seeking Patrick’s support for the four-month interim appointment to replace Senator John Kerry. Yes, Frank can be obnoxious, even to his friends. And as a retiring congressman who relishes the idea of never again going before the voters, he’s as unleashed as he ever has been. Washington, watch out.
But as Patrick acknowledged, Frank is an excellent candidate for interim senator. Choosing him would serve two important purposes. First, since he’s emphatically ruled out any future election, his selection would allow the voters to choose a permanent senator without having one of the candidates anointed by the governor. Second, he would be effective immediately as a senator, since he’s about as knowledgeable on federal budget issues as anyone in Congress. That’s crucial because budget cutting will be the prime agenda item for the next four months. And Frank, who’s toiled fruitlessly in the Republican-led House alongside GOP gadfly Ron Paul on a plan to trim the defense budget, would finally get to make his case in the Senate.
With the Senate under pressure to eliminate hundreds of billions of dollars in planned spending, every dollar that can be saved in military spending will be one that won’t come out of Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security, programs which are the sole source of support for about half of all senior citizens. But cutting the Defense Department will be a difficult task; the various contractors and interest groups have become adept at defending their programs as vital for national security. In the absence of powerful arguments to the contrary, many members of Congress, from the most ardent liberal peaceniks to the most austere fiscal conservatives, simply fall back on blank-check support for the Pentagon. Thus, the military budget becomes so sacred that even the normal fiscal efficiencies, like asking non-combat retirees to pay a bit more in co-pays for their extremely generous lifetime health coverage, don’t get made. Cost overruns by major contractors don’t get adequately policed. More than almost anyone now in the Senate, Frank knows where potential savings can be found.
If Frank were able to play a role simply in framing the debate over budget cuts, he’d be making a greater contribution than most appointed senators make even in far longer terms. The other candidates who’ve been mentioned — a worthy roster than includes Vicki Kennedy, Margaret Marshall, and Michael Dukakis, among others — would bring famous names, strong passions, and, in Dukakis’s case especially, decades of expertise. But it’s not precisely the expertise that’s needed at the moment. That’s what Frank, and no other potential appointee currently on the horizon, can offer. Giving Barney Frank a platform, even for four months, may give Patrick a little pause. There will surely be some off-key sound bites (Frank’s graceless victory speech in 2010 comes to mind), but also a lot of sharp thinking and brilliant analysis. Behind the cantankerous personality is an unusually strong legislative mind. Frank is fully deserving of the appointment.