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Barney Frank, Reconsidered

There’s much to admire about Barney Frank. He’s brainy, has a lacerating wit that he’s willing to use in calling out idiots, and straightforwardly principled on a number of issues. I particularly admire (if I don’t fully share) his purist view of the First Amendment. He was one of  only three House members to oppose the law that now forbids protests near many military funerals, and has declined to support the resolution against Joe Wilson, on the ground that being a “jerk” shouldn’t be censurable. Overall, his Massachusetts constituents and the LGB…1 community are, in general, lucky to have him as a spokesman and a champion. But…

Recent events have caused me to re-evaluate his real value and commitment to the gay community. It’s time to hold him accountable. The trigger for this post was his refusal to co-sponsor a bill (“The Respect for Marriage Act”), just introduced into the House yesterday, that would repeal the pernicious Defense of Marriage Act. Frank’s reason? The bill “has zero chance of passage, even out of committee.” Doesn’t Frank’s refusal doom the bill? “It does send a message that it’s a bad idea,” says Frank. “But I want to send a message.”

Well, that’s odd, because Frank hasn’t exactly restricted his support to bills with a reasonable chance of passage. Last year, for example, he proposed the Personal Use of Marijuana by Responsible Adults Act of 2008, which would decriminalize the possession and use of small amounts of pot. Is this likely to pass? A year after its introduction, it has a robust seven co-sponsors in the House; by contrast, DOMA repeal has more than 90 co-sponsors exactly one day after its introduction.

Worse, Frank now says that we should rely on the courts for the repeal of DOMA. This is the same person, remember, who defended the Obama Administration’s offensive brief supporting DOMA. If that brief’s arguments are accepted, there’s no chance that DOMA will be declare unconstitutional. Yet now the Roberts Court is our best chance? What is Frank thinking?

In a way, none of this is surprising. Frank’s courage has always come with a bold-faced asterisk. He didn’t come out until several years after first being elected to the House, after his seat was secure. Not unforgivable; people come out at their own pace, and Frank, now approaching the age of 70, is of a generation for whom openness about (gay) sexual orientation is uncomfortable. Yet his hesitance bespeaks a politician’s genetic predisposition towards self-preservation. So perhaps there’s something going on behind Frank’s odd stance here that we’ve yet to learn; some kind of deal, perhaps, to hold off on DOMA in favor of other legislation that (we’re endlessly reassured) will be forthcoming much sooner: hate crimes law; ENDA; perhaps even the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

But it’s appalling for him to argue that The Respect for Marriage Act will be controversial because it will be seen to require states that oppose same-sex marriages to recognize such unions from other states. The bill plainly does not do that, and Frank knows it. It simply requires the federal government to look to the state where the couple was married in deciding whether to recognize it for federal purposes. By suggesting that opponents will be able to use this provision to attack  the bill, Frank fuels their arguments.

This is leadership?

  1. I left out the “T” from the usual alphabet string above because Frank has sometimes seemed obtusely insensitive to the needs of the transgender community. He once supported a version of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act that wasn’t trans-inclusive. (Quick: What group most needs protection against workplace discrimination?)
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