Michael Hirsh | Al Franken Gets Serious

The funnyman turned freshman senator has quietly made himself a force to be reckoned with in Washington.

You could almost imagine it as a Saturday Night Live routine. Open with a shot of the U.S. Capitol. A senator is droning on about some horribly boring subject. Cut to Al Franken sitting in the Senate chairman’s seat, gavel in hand. Antics ensue. It could be a funny skit, except that for the past year, Al Franken actually has been spending a lot of time in the Senate chairman’s seat—off the air, avoiding jokes, studying the job of senator and his new colleagues as they take their turns on the floor.

And to the amazement of many, the freshman senator from Minnesota—apart from Scott Brown of Massachusetts, he’s the rawest rookie on the Hill—has begun to have a serious impact. Franken has pushed through major amendments to two of the biggest bills in decades, health care and financial reform. Just as notably, he has mustered the kind of bipartisan support that no one thought possible for the ultraliberal author of Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot, his 1996 book. “I spent hours in the chair,” Franken told Newsweek, presiding over dreary speeches. “You have no choice when you’re a freshman…. But the thing about it is, instead of using the time to write thank-you notes, I pay close attention to what’s going on.”

Franken was paying attention in May, when the Senate was on the verge of passing the biggest financial-reform bill since the 1930s. No one, he thought, was taking a serious look at the credit-rating agencies, mainly Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s. The agencies had given solid “investment” ratings to hundreds of billions of dollars in bad securities based on junky subprime mortgages, helping to precipitate the financial crisis. In the opinion of many experts, that was no accident: the ratings agencies are paid by the investment banks whose securities they judge, a seeming conflict of interest. Building on an earlier proposal from California Rep. Brad Sherman, Franken came up with the idea of creating an intermediary board that would deal with the conflict of interest by rotating credit rating agencies among firms issuing securities.

A career comedy writer who is sarcastic by nature, Franken had already had a few public run-ins with GOP senators. But he decided to confine himself to speechifying soberly in the Senate about his new amendment. “I decided I needed to go on the floor and talk about it as much as possible. I think on the second day, Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), who was next to speak, heard me. He said, “Gee, that sounds like a good idea.?” Soon Franken had Wicker and 63 other votes—including 11 Republicans—in favor of his amendment.

What happened to Franken’s amendment after that, however, raises larger questions about the effectiveness of the financial-reform bill—a dense, 2,000-page behemoth that critics say is riddled with loopholes and exemptions. Sen. Chris Dodd and Rep. Barney Frank, the Democratic leaders on the bill, decided the Franken amendment was a tad too…bold. Dodd said he wanted two years to study the matter, creating another in a total of 47 studies and 74 reports authorized by the bill, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. (The financial industry had pleaded for more time to change its practices.) Franken says he was baffled by the opposition from his own party. “I could never quite figure it out,” he said. “It was weird. Dodd gave a speech and said, “What Al’s done is great. This is a terrific idea…But I think it could have unintended consequences.” I said, “Maybe you could tell me what one of them is.?” (Dodd’s spokesman did not return phone calls seeking comment; Frank spokesman Steve Adamske said the representative was also concerned the amendment might have unintended consequences and fail to solve the conflict-of-interest issue.)

Franken fought back, insisting that the bill’s language say that his credit-rating plan would go into force automatically if the SEC couldn’t come up with a better alternative. “We fought to get ‘may’ to ‘shall,’?” Franken says. His old friend Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute—an expert on the legislative process—says Franken is having more success than any freshman he’s seen since Phil Gramm in 1985 (Franken was sworn in only last July after a court battle over the election results). “People who started with the stereotype of him as the shallow ranting guy have come to see…that he’s reasonable,” says Ornstein, who also points to a widely supported provision Franken pushed through on health care, forcing insurers to spend far more on actual health care and less on CEO pay, marketing, and other nonmedical things.

Even old friends from Minnesota like lawyer Tom Borman—a Franken crony from high school—are struck by the senator’s studiousness. “I’ve actually been surprised that he has laid back for as long as he has,” says Borman. “His instinct is to charge forward.” Franken says his model has been Hillary Clinton. Like Franken, the former New York senator—now secretary of state—came into office famous and facing a lot of settled views of her in the GOP, most of them decidedly negative. Like Clinton, Franken made a decision to keep his head down, not use his celebrity to get on all the Sunday talk shows and antagonize his Senate colleagues. “I talked to Tamara Luzzato, Hillary’s (Senate) chief of staff,” Franken says. “She told me that what Hillary did was go to all her committee hearings. And be prepared. So that’s what I’ve been doing.”

While most Americans got to know him as a comedy writer who made occasional appearances on SNL and in films, Franken was also a talk-show host and Harvard-educated author who became a foil for Republicans in the 2000s, when he seemed to delight in provoking them to spluttering outrage. Back in Minnesota, Franken is still hated by the GOP, which points to his recent criticism of the Roberts Supreme Court as “a fist with brass knuckles” as evidence that “his true personality is coming out,” as state GOP chairman Tony Sutton puts it. “He’s a good fundraising tool for us,” adds Sutton, who says Franken “turned out to be the knee-jerk liberal everyone thought he would be.”

Even some of Franken’s Democratic colleagues suggest he may be naive in thinking that his financial-reform amendment will make much difference. His ally in that fight, longtime representative Sherman, says the amendment and many other provisions of the new bill leave much up to the discretion of future regulators, in this case the Securities and Exchange Commission. Wall Street may figure out a way to game the system by rejiggering deals until banks end up getting the rating agency they want anyway. And ultimately the SEC may decide to do something far milder. “I’m not betting the farm that the SEC won’t take a hostile view toward this amendment and try to figure out a way not to follow it,” says Sherman. For his part, Franken says he’ll be watching over his new law very carefully. The former funnyman has at least five more years to do that as he masters his new role as a serious senator.

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