by Howard Lestrud
ECM Political Editor
U.S. Sen. Al Franken is never at a loss for putting a spin on a discussion topic, whether he is wearing his senatorial hat or fulfilling his role as a new grandfather.
How is the 62-year-old Franken of today different from when he took the oath of office four years ago as Minnesota’s junior senator?
“As a person, I am pretty much the same,” he admitted when meeting with the ECM Publishers Editorial Board earlier this week in Coon Rapids.
Franken said he was known as a comedian when he was elected to the Senate after a lengthy recount.
“I have become more familiar with the way things work in the Senate,” Franken said. “There was the reaction of exceeding expectations, and that was easy to do,” Franken replied with that robust, echoing laugh.
When talking about himself, Franken doesn’t take long to point out that he moved up in Senate seniority in an alarmingly fast way, but more importantly, he is a grandfather now.
Being a grandfather “makes me look at things in a slightly different way,” Franken said. Joseph Bryson Greenwald was born May 30 to Franken’s daughter Thomasin Franken and son-in-law Brody Greenwald. The family resides in Washington, D.C., so Franken and wife Franni press the home court advantage on the other grandparents from southern California.
“We’ve got to make sure every child has the same advantages,” Franken insisted. He said the return on the investment in early childhood education is something he strongly supports.
Before moving to other issues, Franken changed the pace of the interview, asking where he had left his phone – “Did I leave it in the car, damn it,” he said – and expressing a desire to brag about his grandson by showing a picture saved on his smartphone. Showing his comic side, Franken said all editorial board members now had to “come out to the car” to see what he called “an incredibly adorable picture” of his grandson. An intern retrieved Franken’s phone, allowing Franken to show off his grandson’s picture.
Making the point that family events often trump work on world issues, Franken said, “You see him come out completely clueless and then in two months he’s making eye contact, smiling and gurgling. You can’t look at a child and not say we’ve got to make sure that every child has the same advantages.”
Accepting reality, Franken said he was frustrated that political leaders are not making the investments that need to be made.
Franken said many of his constituents ask him if he thought the Senate was different than what he thought it would be. Through another spurt of laughter, Franken said, “I can’t remember what I thought it would be and wish I would have written down what I thought it would be like.”
Franken admitted he wanted to identify his working demeanor early in his senatorial service and did just that by passing a bill on service dogs just two weeks into office. It was a bipartisan effort with the help of Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., he said.
One of Franken’s major pieces of legislation has been the health care 80-20 rule provision. If insurers don’t spend at least 80 percent of customers’ premiums on actual health care, but instead put it toward things like overhead, marketing and CEO salaries, then they must refund the difference to customers.
The rebate from the 80-20 rule has amounted to a savings of more than $2.7 billion, Franken said. He explained that the law was patterned after a Minnesota law passed in 1993.
More work needs to be done in respect to reform of health care delivery, Franken said. Minnesota is currently No. 1 in delivering value care. He said good delivery systems should be rewarded. Better health care delivery nationwide could reduce health care costs, he said.
Care for the young and for the elderly is improving, Franken said, with preventive care also helping reduce costs. He said the cost of health care in the past three years has grown at the lowest rate in the past 50 years. Insurance premiums are also growing at the smallest rate since 1996, Franken said.
Franken has been utilizing his time away from Washington to visit with constituents throughout Minnesota.
“I heard a lot of frustration directed at Washington, and I feel frustrated myself,” Franken said.
Congress did not pass an appropriations bill for transportation and housing. No appropriations bills were passed in either House. Franken said it looks like there will be more confrontations about the budget at the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30 and also with the debt limit.
“Hopefully, we won’t have the debacle we had in 2011,” he said.
Using the immigration bill as an example, Franken said there has been some “good bipartisanship” and compromise resulting in work getting done. Franken introduced five amendments on this bill, with one of his amendments being the only one passing unanimously. He also pointed to the confirmation of administrative executive decisions as examples of progress toward bipartisanship. Franken listed Republican Sen. John McCain, of Arizona, as a key lawmaker practicing bipartisanship.
Creation of more jobs nationwide is the objective of many political leaders, Franken being no exception. He recently introduced a bill before the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that could bridge the job skills gap and give students the training, tuition and real-world internships needed to fill 3.5 million job openings.
Franken said there are many manufacturers that have jobs but do not have people with the proper skills to fill them. His bill creates a competitive grants program where businesses and community colleges come together to train the workers they need. The bill is named the Community College to Career Fund Act. Franken compared the program similarly to the education Race to the Top grant process.
E.J. Ajax, in Fridley, a precision machine tooling company, has used this concept already and it works, Franken said. This apprentice-type program led an Ajax employee to walk up the ladder in education degrees and eventually end up as the head of quality control, Franken related.
In his discussion with 10 ECM Editorial Board members, Franken offered senatorial observations on the following:
• The Farm Bill – The Senate bill connected conservation practices with crop insurance. These parts of the bill are absolutely necessary, Franken said. He wrote the energy title of the Senate bill. The House bill has no connection with nutritional assistance. Franken said cuts in SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as seen in the House bill, would take away benefits from children.
• National Security Agency – Franken serves on the Judiciary Committee and has availed himself to classified briefings. He said it is necessary to weigh obligations to keep Americans safe while considering privacy rights. Franken strongly endorses transparency in security.
• Student loans and college affordability – Rising costs of college tuition and college affordability needs to be addressed, Franken said. Extending the 3.4 percent rate on Stafford loans has brought down rates in the short term. Minnesota currently ranks third in the country in college debt, with students now graduating with an average of about $30,000 in debt. The ability to get college credits while in high school can be accelerated, Franken said. He has introduced a bill where high school graduates can graduate with earned college credits. Franken said the U.S. must look at what other countries are doing in providing education at low costs or no costs at all. “We must make it less expensive to attend college,” he said.
Howard Lestrud is at [email protected].