WASHINGTON – Problems may have existed in the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the last decade, but they have only gotten worse under the direction of "right-wing ideologue" Attorney General John Ashcroft, according to Democratic Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts.
While insisting that the real evil was done by the terrorists on Sept. 11, Frank said a "slippage" in focus on counterterrorist efforts has occurred since the Bush administration took office in 2001.
"I think, yeah, every administration, from Reagan, even Carter, was slow to react, but I think the Clinton administration was doing as good a job as they could. Then, I think there was a priority change that caused more slippage than anything," Frank told Fox News. "It shows we have a right-wing ideologue, rather than law enforcement, as the head of the Justice Department."
For those who know and have worked with Frank, his cutting commentary on the Republican administration, particularly on Ashcroft, comes as no surprise. An 11-term incumbent from one of the most liberal districts in the country — suburban Boston — Frank has forged a reputation on his sharp tongue and passionate left-of-center politics.
"Few if any members of Congress can keep up with Barney in a battle of wits or policy rationales," said Rep. Martin Meehan, D-Mass., a friend and member of the state's all-Democratic delegation.
Frank's skills on the floor recently led to his recruitment to lead an elite parliamentary special-ops squad of House members fed up with the Republican majority. Their goal: to tie up legislative procedures until they get their say.
"Barney's knowledge of House rules and procedures is downright scary," said Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla., a colleague on the House Judiciary Committee. "He also has the quickest wit and the sharpest tongue."
Frank, who employed this verbal dexterity to attack what he called the hypocrisy of the GOP following the Republican takeover in 1994 and to defend Clinton during the impeachment hearings, said Democrats have had enough of being pushed around.
"What [the Republican leadership have] done is develop a strategy for not letting what they think are controversial issues onto the floor, and we’re objecting to this," he said, insisting that conservatives in the House have stifled healthy debate and have used the slim majority to push Democratic issues aside.
Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., a close friend of Frank and also a colleague on two committees, agreed with his assessment. "[They] have become notorious for limiting our ability to debate important issues and Barney is our best leader on parliamentary procedure to make sure we are able to fend them off and outwit them."
But Republicans say this is just a lot of whining from Democrats who hate the fact they are not in charge.
"It's tough being in the minority, and someone like Barney Frank, who has been in the majority before, is certainly frustrated," said one Republican committee aide. "I think it's frustrating for them not to do exactly what they want."
Greg Crist, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Dick Armey's office, said the Democrats are just seeking to stall legislation without any meaningful agenda to forward in its place.
"I have yet to see a bill offered by Democrats on prescription drugs, no bill on the fiscal budget," Crist said. "We do try to make accommodations. Are we always going to be accommodating? Not when they want us to surrender the floor so that Democrats can make political statements in an election year, and that’s what it will come down to — issues that are non-germane."
Political entanglements aside, Frank has put his thumbprint on a number of initiatives that have been important to his district throughout the years, especially on issues targeted at the poor, immigrants and gays. In 1986, he helped to expand immigration laws to allow people who are HIV-positive into the country and to ensure that children of illegal immigrants were not barred from public schools.
One of the House's openly gay members, Frank has worked hard in support of anti-discrimination laws for federal employees, a bipartisan policy he is still attempting to push through Congress. Much to the chagrin of conservatives, he is a staunch supporter of federal housing subsidies, protecting "the welfare state," and, up until Sept. 11, cutting defense spending.
"Barney Frank is a big tax and spender, who likes to build bureaucracy. He's never denied that or shied away from it," said Nathan Little, the state GOP spokesman.
Back home, Republicans say Frank is a big player in a land they call "Moscowchusetts," where Democrats run the state House and Washington delegation, and are gunning hard to take over the governorship, too.
"One party seems to be the rule here and that's not good for anyone," Little said. "We always look for someone to run against him, but he's certainly a powerful figure down there in the district."
Frank, who has not had a close race since 1982, is so far running unopposed in the 2002 election. Registration by party candidates closed on June 4. He balks at the suggestion that Republicans are shut out of the process at home.
"The voters don't think so," he said. "Every single representative was elected, not appointed, and that's because we all agree with the people on the issues."