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Bill Frenzel: The ghost of the Republican Party past

Bill Frenzel

In the 1960s, I delivered the Minneapolis Star in Golden Valley. My paper route included the home of Bill and Ruth Frenzel. Around age 15, I quit the newspaper business. A few years later, Frenzel was elected to represent the 3rd Congressional District. He served in Congress for almost two decades.

My parents consistently worked for candidates who ran against Frenzel. However, despite my family’s opposing partisan leanings, Bill and Ruth Frenzel were known to be good neighbors, parents, listeners and, most important to me, good tippers. When Frenzel canvassed the neighborhood, he ignored the political signs dotting our lawn and stopped by just to chat.

A ‘fiscal curmudgeon’

Frenzel served on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, the crucible for the nation’s tax policy. He enjoyed a reputation as policy oriented and described himself as a “fiscal curmudgeon.” He was a member of the “Wednesday Group,” a coalition of moderate Republican congressional leaders.

After leaving office in 1991, Frenzel took his fiscal and trade policy expertise to the Brookings Institution.

At the time of his death in 2014, Democrats as progressive as Rep. Keith Ellison hailed Frenzel as someone who “worked across the aisle.” Rep. Rick Nolan said Frenzel “understood the foundation of bipartisanship.”

Despite some boundary changes, the desires of 3rd district residents have not dramatically changed over the years. If the district was a food, it would be, well, tapioca pudding. Prayers in churches and synagogues throughout the district invariably include something like “Lord, give us fair, thoughtful, not too burdensome public policies which help meet the needs of our neighbors. Also, please let the Vikings win.”

While the sentiments of district voters have not significantly changed, the ideology and approach of the district’s representation appears to have shifted. The district’s current representative, Erik Paulsen, and his allies have employed extensive TV advertising to promote a tax cut package which is now finding its way to the president’s desk. Critics have marshaled a host of arguments against the bill. However, it may be instructive to consider how Frenzel – the “fiscal curmudgeon”– might react to the legislation.

Ronald Reagan was elected president shortly after Frenzel joined the Ways and Means Committee. Two major tax matters unfolded during Reagan’s first term. The first was the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981 (known as Kemp-Roth), which, among other things, significantly cut individual, corporate and estate taxes to stimulate the economy. Shortly after passage of Kemp-Roth, the deficit exploded, interest rates rose to 20 percent, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell nearly 30 percent. The country experienced a “double dip” recession.

Frenzel helped pass TEFRA

Robert Moilanen

Soon after Kemp-Roth became law, the Congress reversed course by passing the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act (TEFRA), which undid much of Kemp-Roth. TEFRA implemented what was, at that time, the largest peacetime tax hike in history. The economy stabilized and the first “Reagan recovery” took off. Frenzel was among 103 Republicans who joined 122 Democrats to pass TEFRA.

Like Paulsen, Frenzel believed that tax cuts could spur job growth. However, Frenzel was honest with his constituents by requiring that the budget impact had to be married to the adoption of any new tax policy. Frenzel was too much of a deficit hawk to advocate wholesale tax giveaways without communicating the commensurate spending cuts that would have to occur.

In “Taming the Deficit,” a 2007 Brookings paper co-authored by Frenzel, Frenzel’s summary begins with the following daunting language: “Currently projected deficits are unsustainable and pose serious risks to the economy, make us dangerously dependent on the rest of the world, impose an extra “debt tax” on every taxpayer, send the bill for current spending to future generations and weaken the ability of the federal government to invest in the future or respond to unforeseen circumstances.” The paper sets forth a series of proposals to deal with the deficit, which include entitlement reform, a spending freeze and, significantly, a “broadening of the tax base.”

Since Frenzel’s paper was written, the deficit has grown and, according to most, will now climb more than $1 trillion if the tax bill promoted by Paulsen becomes law. It is inconceivable that Frenzel would be in support of the current tax bill given his strong feelings about deficits and Paulsen’s eerie silence on the impact of the proposed tax cuts on entitlements.

Worked across party lines

Further, Frenzel probably would be disappointed in the highly partisan process by which the tax bill has been pushed and, no doubt, would be surprised by Paulsen’s need to saturate the district’s airwaves to convince his own constituents of the merits of the bill. Frenzel worked across party lines throughout his career. He described Democratic Speaker of the House Tom Foley as a “good” leader, endorsed President Barack Obama’s proposed 2009 spending freeze and helped Clinton pass the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Given his genial nature, one can also speculate about how appalled Frenzel would be at how uncivil Washington has become. District voters can imagine Frenzel writing the preface to Sen. Jeff Flake’s recent book attacking the tone and direction of President Donald Trump’s Republican Party. Tragically, in the face of highly partisan, often tawdry and rude behavior, Paulsen has simply never found Frenzel’s voice.

When Frenzel died in 2014, Paulsen took to the House floor and stated, “… there will be no temptation on the part of any of us to try to do a Bill Frenzel imitation because there will never be another like him.” True to his word, Paulsen has not been tempted to emulate Frenzel’s leadership traits when if it comes to bipartisan, rational fiscal policy.

Robert Moilanen is a resident of the 3rd Congressional District who formerly worked for Vice President Walter Mondale.


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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 12/20/2017 - 12:04 pm.

    Small Point

    Mr. Moilnanen mentions the “second Reagan recovery”, which is often tied to the tax cuts. What is rarely mentioned in this context is that this was concurrent with the absolute collapse of global oil prices, which was a huge shot in the arm that had nothing to do with anything going on in DC.

  2. Submitted by Carol Flynn on 12/20/2017 - 12:14 pm.


    Another voice from the past, Martin Sabo, worked closely with Frenzel throughout his distinguished career in the House.

  3. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 12/20/2017 - 04:07 pm.


    Much of the same could be said for Frenzel’s predecessor, Clark MacGregor, (other than that stint with CREEP in 1968). And it can especially be said for Frenzel’s successor Jim Ramstad.

    Which makes Erik Paulsen’s orange Ramstad “lookalike signs” all the more pernicious: look like Ramstad, vote like Bachmann should be the disclaimer at the bottom of every Paulsen sign.

    Made all the more clear when we see R congress people from NJ, NY and CA all abandon the Trump tax plan because of state and local tax issues and our men Paulsen, Emmer and Lewis are good soldiers to the end.

    Further evidence of Paulsen’s lack of courage and effectiveness can be seen in tax reform that licks the wounds of every GOP special interest group except the one he claims to be fighting most for: the med tech tax repeal.

  4. Submitted by Daniel Gardner on 12/20/2017 - 05:48 pm.

    Thanks for enlightening all of us

    Mr. Moilanen’s piece helps us understand the triviality of those who want to claim the Reagan tax cuts helped all Americans. Many Republicans conveniently forget to tell us that it took a tax INCREASE to redeem the economy. You can look it up . . . but then, what fun would that be?! It’s only history. Or some would cry “fake” news, even though it did REALLY HAPPEN. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Mr. Moilanen.

  5. Submitted by David Markle on 12/20/2017 - 07:25 pm.

    Another reminder of better days

    Al Quie was another who worked across party lines and well, when he served in Congress. And he still puts in a good word, now and then.

  6. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 12/31/2017 - 02:11 pm.

    Shortly after I moved back here in 2003 after 19 years away, I attended a DFL picnic and struck up a conversation with a statewide official (whom I did not recognize until he introduced himself).

    I remarked how I had seen the Republican Party in Oregon transition from a reasonable party, one that produced environmentally conscious and anti-war figures like Senator Mark Hatfield to one that seemed determined to combine the worst traits of the Libertarians and the fundamentalist Christians (and this in one of the most secularized states in the country) in a particularly vicious way.

    The state official nodded and said that the same had happened here. “We had our disagreements in the old days,” he said, “but we could usually work something out. Now, they’re just out for blood.”

    I grew up here during a period when the statehouse and the governorship passed back and forth between the Democrats and the Republicans on a regular basis, and the state was well run either way. The Republicans of the 1950s and 1960s never would have never thrown a tantrum and shut down the state government, nor would they have nominated a local star of far-right radio for Congress.

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