By Richard Gaines
Congressman Barney Frank, a fishing industry advocate and architect of the House's banking reform bill, told a radio audience Tuesday he was giving the Commerce Secretary until next week to redress fishing industry grievances, or he'll take his appeal directly to the Obama White House.
Frank said he has so advised White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanual, adding if Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke has not produced a satisfactory response to a personal appeal two weeks ago by 13 representatives of a 23 member bi-partisan alliance of East Coast lawmakers, "we'll be going to the White House."
Frank issued his challenge in an appearance on New Bedford's WBSM on the same day the national press began analyzing Frank's possible role in the reconciliation this summer of House and Senate versions of the high-profile banking reform bill.
As chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, Frank was the chief architect of the House version. The final structure of the bill will will help frame mid-term congressional elections, and give national voters a key yardstick to take the measure of the president's leadership.
The ultimatum was issued after months of growing exasperation by Frank from efforts to establish a functional dialogue with oceans and atmosphere administrator Jane Lubchenco, whose fishing policy priority — converting fisheries to a catch-share regulatory format in which fishermen's shares can be bought, sold or traded — touched off a national protest at the Capitol in February and spawned a federal lawsuit filed by the cities of Gloucester and New Bedford.
Frank, along with both Massachusetts senators, Democrat John Kerry and Republican Scott Brown, Congressman John Tierney and U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe — the Maine Republican whose support was crucial in the passage earlier this year of the omnibus health care reform bill — were all among the senators and representatives of both parties rebuffed so far by Locke and Lubchenco.
The appeal to Locke was pointedly without a "cc" to Lubchenco, his subordinate.
"I have made it clear to high-ranking members of the administration, including Secretary Locke, that my relationship with the administration will be affected by how they respond to this absolutely urgent need," Frank said after the face-to-face meeting with Locke on May 10.
Frank and New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang have charged that administration fishing policy has been inordinately influenced by environmental forces.
"There's a group of environmentalists who've taken an almost religious attitude" toward fish and against fishing communities, Frank told the radio audience yesterday.
He has repeatedly wondered at the overregulation of the fishing boats and the under-regulation of the financiers and banks. In the interview, Lang noted the failure of the government to apply the same rigor to the oil rigs in the Gulf that has been put on the fishing boats.
"The irony here is that if the government regulated BP the way they regulate the fisheries, we wouldn't have the problem we do (in the Gulf of Mexico)," said Lang.
The conversion of the New England groundfishery arrived on May 1 with allocated shares of some species so low that most industry analysts predict catches would trigger a summer shutdown without emergency allocations.
Lubchenco has asserted her goal is to remove a "sizeable fraction of the fleet," and critics, notably Frank, have questioned the wisdom of undermining centuries' old coastal cultures to meet rigid stock rebuilding deadlines.
As an officer of the Environmental Defense Fund before her selection by Obama to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Lubchenco helped write a manifesto for catch shares. Other non-government organizations, including the Pew Environment Group, Ecotrust and Food & Water Watch have disputed Lubchenco's claims for the curative powers of converting the commons into commodities.
Frank, who has been frustrated in an extended exchange of letters with Lubchenco, said he told Locke that "what administrator Lubchenco is trying to do is unacceptable."
"It will visit great economic damage on the fishermen and the communities from which they fish," he said.
"I've always been skeptical of Lubchenco," Frank told the Times after the May 10 meeting with Locke. "Either she doesn't understand the impact of what she's doing — or she doesn't care."
The lawmakers' joint statement on May 10 expressed "strong disagreement" with the federal fisheries policy for a New England groundfishing industry that, according to government reports this week, had been declining in economic vitality, yet still supports 73,000 full- and part-time jobs even as stocks were recovering, and produced $805 million for the region in 2008.
"This has not yet gotten the attention of the White House," Frank said in the radio interview. "That's my job now."
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, c3464, or email@example.com.