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Remembering Bill Frenzel, institution-builder, bridge-builder, and just a prince of a man

Bill Frenzel cared as much about the process and about the institutions as he did about his policy preferences, his party and his ideology.

Bill Frenzel

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Bill Frenzel

The news that Bill Frenzel had died hit me hard, in many ways. First was the personal. I met Bill fairly early in his congressional service, became friends with him in part because he represented my home district and in part because I was close to his mentor in the House, Barber Conable of New York. He was just a prince of a man, thoughtful, kind, nice, smart as hell and someone who cared as much about the process and about the institutions as he did about his policy preferences, his party and his ideology.

That part was a key for me; I looked for legislators who cared about the legislature, about what we call the “regular order,” about a process designed by the Framers to focus on debate and deliberation, on finding broad coalitions via the art of compromise and a relentless search for common ground. Which also meant a primacy for solving nettlesome national problems over gaining political or partisan advantage.

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That set of traits defined Bill Frenzel, through his service in Congress on the Ways and Means Committee, through his efforts on behalf of a series of Republican and Democratic presidents to find ways to pass and implement trade agreements, through his coalition building on taxes, entitlement programs, deficits and debt in and out of Congress. Make no mistake: Bill Frenzel was a strong, free-market-oriented fiscal conservative, and a proud and strong partisan Republican. But those qualities were trumped by the others.

Frenzel saw his service as an honor

One of the many things Bill loved to do was appear with his wonderful wife, Ruthie, at freshman orientation every two years for the new members of the House, where both would stress to the members and their spouses what a remarkable honor it was to serve their constituents in the Congress of the United States, and what a shame it would be if the new members left their families back home in the district so they could not share in the special experiences that come with service in Congress. It was a message that began to fall on deaf ears just a few years after Frenzel left the House, starting with the Newt Gingrich-led sweep in 1994.

When Bill left Congress, he settled at the Brookings Institution in its Governmental Studies program — a place where I have tended to hang out a lot because of my many decades of collaboration with Tom Mann. So I would see Bill there, and we would talk about Minnesota, about Congress, about our deteriorating politics.

I saw him more when he took on, six years ago, a new burden of public service, on the independent Office of Congressional Ethics, which Tom and I helped to create and midwife through a suspicious and hostile House. I feared that Republican leader John Boehner, who strongly opposed creation of the office, would appoint members who would either try to block any action by OCE, or turn it into another polarized battlefield for ethics complaints and investigations. But Boehner stepped up to the plate, choosing a solid institutionalist, former Rep. Porter Goss of Florida as a co-chair, and picking other solid people, including Bill Frenzel, to round out the group.

Norman Ornstein

American Enterprise Institute
Norman Ornstein

Characteristically, Bill became both an institution-builder and bridge-builder, seeing the office as a key place to build confidence in Congress and protect its standards — in what is a thankless and non-remunerative task where one faces vilification and condemnation from members and staff facing an allegation, who see any independent ethics body as a threat to them. Even during a period as an alternate for purposes of voting, Bill threw himself into making sure that OCE would work, do its job fairly and thoroughly, and would do everything as much as possible with unanimity, including members spanning every ideological and party spectrum. I would huddle with him whenever the office was under attack, from the existing House Ethics Committee, which resented anyone intruding on its turf, to members and their lawyers facing a probe. His integrity and reputation was almost like an invisible shield protecting OCE from the most outrageous assaults on it.

He represented a mindset that is so rare today

More broadly, I lament the loss of Bill Frenzel because of what he represented — a set of characteristics, and a mindset, that are extraordinarily rare to find in today’s Congress, especially among Republicans. Caring about their own institution and its processes, valuing the regular order and compromise, are now trumped by the tribal impulses of the permanent campaign and the shrinking center on the Hill. At the same time, I miss the kind of Minnesota Republican that I grew up watching and admiring — from the late Doug Head to Arne Carlson to Bill’s successor, Jim Ramstad. All people of the broad center, all men of integrity, all individuals who put solving big problems ahead of partisanship, facts ahead of ideology, measured words ahead of overheated rhetoric.

Bill Frenzel may not be the last of a breed. But the numbers like him are vastly diminished, and those with his personal and public qualities are rare at any time.

Norman Ornstein is a political scientist and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. He is the author of numerous books, including “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism,” with Thomas E. Mann in 2012. Ornstein was born in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, grew up in St. Louis Park, and is a University of Minnesota graduate.


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