TNR Profile Examines Early Successes of Sen. Al Franken’s

November 16, 2010

More than a year in office and Sen. Al Franken, a former entertainer and author of best-selling books, such as Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, has "self-consciously" strived to be "the institutionalist who can achieve bipartisan consensus but also successfully champion liberal legislation," writes Jeffrey Rosen for The New Republic.

Rosen, a law professor at George Washington University, and TNR's Legal Affairs Editor, talked extensively with Sen. Franken and discovered a senator serious about his work, and already garnering impressive achievements. 

Rosen writes of Franken's work ethic:

In recent years, congressional hearings have become little more than televised sideshows in which most senators rely on questions scripted by their staff and seem unable to ask tough or even relevant follow-ups. Franken clearly aspires to an older tradition, when lawmakers could think on their feet and were capable of grilling witnesses without aides handing them notes or whispering furtively in their ears. He studies issues exhaustively, which allows him to negotiate directly with senators and their aides rather than intermediaries. His staffers say that he encourages them to challenge him during the murder boards he assembles to prepare for hearings and sometimes insists on staying past midnight.

On some of the senator's congressional accomplishments, Rosen writes:

Franked has accomplished more in his first year than many Senate freshman, sponsoring several amendments that became law. One requires health insurance companies to spend 85 percent of premiums on actual medical care, not administrative costs or other expenses.

Another measure bans the federal government from awarding contracts to employers who require employees to give up their right to sue for sexual harassment or rape at work. (The law was inspired by the case of Jamie Leigh Jones, who accused her co-workers at Halliburton in Baghdad of gang raping her and was forced by Halliburton into secret arbitration.)

One of Franken's greatest frustrations during his first year has centered on the struggles to extend unemployment insurance. On numerous occasions, Republican lawmakers in the Senate blocked or obstructed efforts to extend such benefits. Franken told Rosen of meeting constituents who have told him they wouldn't have shelter without the benefits.

"I'll go to a union hall," Franken told Rosen, "and see people whose whole identity is their job - these guys have worked since they were ten years old ... and they haven't had a job in six months, and you see that they're literally depressed. I've had guys say to me, ‘If it weren't for unemployment insurance ... I wouldn't be in my house,' and then I hear how unemployment insurance incentivizes people not to get jobs. You hear that, and you think how out of touch that is, and how insensitive it is."

During this year's ACS national convention, Franken gave a keynote address focusing on the struggles to protect individual rights. In particular, Franken scored the Supreme Court's conservative majority for siding with corporate interests over those of individual Americans.

"If you have a credit card, if you watch TV, if you file insurance claims, if you work - in other words, if you participate in American daily life at all - then you interact with corporations that are more powerful than you are," Franken said. "The degree to which those corporations' rights are protected over yours, well that's extremely relevant in your life. And in case after case, the Roberts Court has put not just a thumb, but a fist, on the scale in favor of those corporations."

He continued, "It's important to recognize that, for some conservative legal activists, this is the whole point. Do they want to undercut abortion and immigration and Miranda rights? Sure. But those are just cherries on the sundae. What conservative legal activists are really interested in is this question: What individual rights are so basic and so important that they should be protected above a corporation's right to profit? And their preferred answer is: None of them. Zero."

Watch Franken's entire speech below.