University News

Senator talks partisan politics, SNL

Senior Staff Writer
Monday, March 12, 2012

Former Saturday Night Live cast member and current junior United States senator Al Franken, D-Minn., proved that his comedic chops are still fully intact Sunday afternoon. Franken, who accepted the Brown Democrats’ 2012 John F. Kennedy Jr. Award for inspiring youth in politics, spoke about policy and his experiences in a divided Congress to a crowd in MacMillan 117.

 Franken touched on some of his successful initiatives that passed during a difficult legislative term for Democrats. Franken authored a health care provision requiring insurance companies to adhere to a minimum medical loss ratio, which would designate at least 85 percent of premium payments to be used strictly for medical care in large group plans. The provision passed and has already helped lower the cost of large-group insurance plans, in some cases by as much as 10 percent, according to Franken.

“There is plenty to celebrate,” Franken said of recent legislative action, citing the overturn of the ban on stem cell research and the conclusion of the war in Iraq, but he added that Democrats need to significantly step it up in the future to push legislative goals. “Every minute we stop pushing … is a minute Republicans spend pushing in the other direction,” he said.

Franken did not shy away from explaining his convictions on the ineffectiveness of Congress. “You hear that the Senate is the greatest deliberative body in the world,” he said. “It’s not.”

Though Franken said bipartisan efforts occur more frequently than the news media conveys to the general public, ideological roadblocks to passing initiatives generally originate from conservatives. 

“The blame is asymmetrical,” he said, adding that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConell, R-Ky., and his public statements prioritizing President Obama’s defeat in 2012 “(tell) you everything you need to know.”

When asked if his Republican colleagues were concerned about the trajectory of the Republican presidential primaries, Franken said, “I don’t talk to them a lot.” But, he added, he suspects most of them are too intelligent not to be concerned about the primary. “And you can’t be a Democrat and not enjoy it,” he said.

Franken said Mitt Romney will likely be the eventual Republican nominee. “That will be very exciting,” he deadpanned.

Franken had choice words for the current Supreme Court bench, which he referred to as “an activist court of the worst kind.” He alluded to what he expressed as a far-reaching decision in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, where the Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 that the government cannot set limits on political expenditures by corporations. 

Though Franken said he is cautiously optimistic about the upcoming health care reform arguments, he said the activist ideology of the justices, particularly Clarence Thomas, is cause for concern. “These guys are awful,” he said.

Franken defended his support of the Protect IP Act, about which he said there are “legitimate qualms, but a lot of misunderstanding.” While citing the need to “protect intellectual property,” he said the act would also protect online users from websites such as fraudulent pharmaceutical distributors.

“It’s stealing,” Franken said of online piracy by foreign sites, adding that piracy has far-reaching financial consequences for thousands in the entertainment industry. “This isn’t about getting Brad Pitt more money,” he said.

Franken said many uninformed reporters and opponents confused the act with the House of Representatives bill, the Stop Online Piracy Act.

“You’ve got to change your support of SOPA,” Franken said people have advised him. “I can’t because I’m not in the House,” he said he responded.

Franken said he finds the “slippery slope” argument that opponents of PIPA and SOPA rely on reminiscent of arguments used to rationalize lax gun control. 

Franken’s environmental positions received the most support from the audience. 

“I’m wary of the Keystone pipeline,” he said, provoking enthusiastic applause. Franken said reports from TransCanada, a company that backs the pipeline by claiming that the project would create 260,000 jobs, are deceptive. “See how many (of those jobs) are bartenders,” he said. “You get suspicious.”

Franken also expressed concern for governmental neglect of climate change. Citing expert opinions linking global warming and forest fires, Franken said leaving climate change unchecked has financial as well as environmental ramifications, adding that approximately 40 percent of the forest service budget is used to combat preventable wildfires.

Franken said conservative talk radio, which he called “a circuit for cl
imate deniers,” adds extra opposition for legislation improving climate change by swaying public opinion. Polls show overall skepticism of climate change has increased in recent years, he said.

Though Franken did not back away from strong critiques of his legislative opponents, he had considerably less harsh things to say about one commonly criticized group ­— the current cast of Saturday Night Live. “They do some wonderful stuff,” he said, adding that he still watches the show. “It’s spotty, but we’re always spotty.”

Cameron Parsons ’14 said he was surprised by the less-than-full turnout for the lecture.

“Brown students need to get their priorities straight,” he said, calling such events “a central part” of the college experience. “This is what you pay for,” he said.

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