Franken disputes characterization as do-nothing senator

By Doug Belden / St. Paul Pioneer Press St. PAUL - U.S. Sen. Al Franken's Republican opponent says that in five years in the U.S. Senate, Franken has become the poster child for a do-nothing, superpartisan Congress. Franken disputes the portrait ...

Al Franken
Al Franken

By Doug Belden / St. Paul Pioneer Press

St. PAUL – U.S. Sen. Al Franken’s Republican opponent says that in five years in the U.S. Senate, Franken has become the poster child for a do-nothing, superpartisan Congress.

Franken disputes the portrait painted by first-time candidate Mike McFadden. The Democratic incumbent says he has voted Minnesotans’ interests and been an effective advocate for improving the lot of the middle class, often while working across party lines.

Getting a real read on Franken’s record – or any senator’s record – isn’t easy, said Steve Smith, professor of social sciences and political science at Washington University in St. Louis.

“This is probably a more difficult time to evaluate a legislative record in the Senate than I’ve seen in 50 years,” Smith said. “The total output of the Congress is so exceptionally low, because of the deep divide between the House and the Senate, that the leaders of both parties – let alone rank-and-file members like Franken – have largely given up on pressing forward with major legislation.”


Looking strictly at bills Franken has sponsored and his success turning them into law, he doesn’t stack up well with his fellow first-term Democrats. All seven of them sponsored more legislation and all except one, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, had at least one bill signed into law.

Franken’s legislative output comes to 141 pieces of legislation – 85 bills, 47 amendments and nine resolutions – according to Most of his proposals deal with education and health. None of his bills became law.

But Franken said his effectiveness has come in putting forward bills or amendments that are added to larger bills that become law.

The prime example is a bill he introduced in September 2009 requiring at least 90 percent of health insurance premiums be spent on claims and improving the quality of care. That provision, with a slightly lower percentage, was incorporated into the Affordable Care Act.

This was the signature achievement of his term, said Kathryn Pearson, an associate professor of political science at the University of Minnesota.

“Having a major piece of legislation in the (Affordable Care Act) is a significant accomplishment and especially at the time for a first-term senator,” she said.

Franken also got a national diabetes prevention program into the health law known as Obamacare.

Included in the 2013 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act were two provisions he authored – one to ensure victims don’t have to pay for rape kits and another to prevent housing discrimination against domestic-violence victims.


The first initiative he sponsored that made it into law was an amendment in July 2009 to establish a pilot program using service dogs to assist disabled veterans.

Franken also co-wrote the energy section of the farm bill and helped secure $55 million in grant money for mental health services in schools.

In July 2013, he sponsored the Community College to Career Fund Act. Provisions engaging community and technical colleges in workforce development, which he said were embraced by members of both parties, were reflected a year later in a law signed by President Barack Obama.

“My basic focus is on improving people’s lives,” said Franken, who often talks about growing up middle class in St. Louis Park.

McFadden has a different way of describing Franken’s time in Washington, D.C.: Voted with the president 97 percent of the time; most partisan Senate Democrat; most likely to vote with his party.

The challenger said that even in a partisan institution, “he’s extreme. He’s hyperpartisan.”

The National Journal ranked Franken tied for fifth-most liberal member of the Senate in 2013. Contrast that with one of McFadden’s role models, Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who was No. 13 on the list of most conservative senators.

The standard story on Franken is that he shed the fiery, biting persona he had as a liberal author and radio host when he entered the Senate race and put his head down to study and work. McFadden says that’s just more show-business spin.


“A tiger doesn’t change their stripes,” McFadden said. “He’s got this record of being hyperpartisan before he came to the Senate, and now he’s trying to manufacture and manipulate the Minnesota public to believe that he’s been some sort of statesman.”

The problem with Franken’s approach, he said, is it limits what he’s able to accomplish. Part of that is the partisanship and part of it is personality.

“He’s not been able to build relationships,” McFadden said.

 “The Senate is so polarized that it’s just hard to say that Franken really stands out,” Smith said.

Smith said Franken makes a credible case that he has advanced initiatives on a variety of fronts and been able to get some into law.

“He’s certainly as active as any senator at making the case for a wide range of legislation,” he said. “He is considered by his colleagues to be a very serious legislator who does his homework. He picks his spots with some care and then masters a subject, and his effectiveness comes from his persuasiveness.”

McFadden said Franken’s contributions are overrated.

Franken takes credit for helping write the farm bill, which McFadden calls “a case study of how dysfunctional Washington is. It took three years to get a new five-year farm bill. It was supposed to be passed in 2012. Didn’t happen, they kicked the can to 2013. Didn’t happen, they kicked the can to 2014.”


McFadden said Franken has been anything but an advocate for the middle class, largely because he hasn’t done enough to facilitate greater energy independence for the United States.

Take his vote in March 2012 against an amendment that would have authorized the Keystone XL oil pipeline project to proceed without further environmental review, McFadden said. Franken voted on a separate measure to let the pipeline review continue.

Franken, who chairs the energy subcommittee of the Energy and Natural Resources committee, said in the short term the country will need a mixed portfolio of energy that includes fossil fuels, but that he wants to emphasize research and development of renewable energies and efficiency.

He said his focus if he gets a second term will be “making sure that we build the middle class, because I think our economy does better when people in the middle are doing better.”

The St. Paul Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.

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