Rep. Barney Frank (D)
Elected: 1980, 15th term.
Born: March 31, 1940, Bayonne, NJ .
Education: Harvard U., B.A. 1962, J.D. 1977.
Elected office: MA House of Reps., 1972–80.
Professional Career: Exec. asst., Boston Mayor Kevin White, 1967–71; A.A., U.S. Rep. Michael Harrington, 1971–72; Teaching fellow, Harvard JFK Schl. of Govt., 1978–80.
The congressman from the 4th District is Barney Frank, an influential Democrat elected to the House in 1980. He is chairman of the Financial Services Committee, a savvy legislator known for his keen intelligence and sharp tongue. Frank grew up in Bayonne, N.J. His father ran a truck stop on the New Jersey Turnpike and loved to talk politics. All four of his children went on to careers in government service and politics. Barney distinguished himself as a student and was accepted at Harvard, where he got to know local politicians as well as political scientists. In 1967, he took a job as an aide to newly elected Boston Mayor Kevin White, and four years later, he arrived in Washington as an aide to Democratic Rep. Michael Harrington of Massachusetts. In 1972, Frank was elected to the Massachusetts House from Boston’s Back Bay, which was transitioning from a staid Republican bastion to a liberal singles neighborhood. In 1980, when Democratic Rep. Robert Drinan retired after Pope John Paul II commanded Jesuits to leave elective office, Frank moved to Brookline and ran in the 4th District. With a strong base in Brookline and Newton, he won. After redistricting threw him in with Republican Rep. Margaret Heckler in 1982, he defeated her 60%-40%. He has been re-elected by wide margins since.
|Barney Frank (D)||203,032||(68%)||($2,953,741)|
|Earl Sholley (R)||75,571||(25%)||($39,038)|
|Susan Allen (I)||19,848||(7%)|
|Barney Frank (D)||Unopposed|
Prior Winning Percentages: 2006 (100%), 2004 (78%), 2002 (100%), 2000 (75%), 1998 (100%), 1996 (72%), 1994 (100%), 1992 (68%), 1990 (66%), 1988 (70%), 1986 (89%), 1984 (74%), 1982 (60%), 1980 (52%)
In the House, Frank quickly gained a reputation for his smarts and debating skills. He is perhaps one of the best debaters in modern American history, with a distinct, rapid-fire style that makes his less able opponents seem dull-witted by comparison. David Shribman, the former longtime Washington bureau chief of the Boston Globe, calls Frank “cranky, impatient, rude—and utterly brilliant.” In a Washingtonian magazine poll of congressional staffers in 2006, he was voted the brainiest, funniest, and most eloquent member of the House. He is admired even by Republicans for his intellectual rigor and honesty. At the same time, he is a wily political operator. He does not profess to be a political theoretician, though few in the House exceed him as such. Frank once said, “My job is to be the mediator between people who have policy ideas and public policy. My strength is to be able to understand policy ideas and decide how best to implement them. I am about the political process. I know the rules of the House as much as anybody. I am a wonk about how to get things done, more than about what to do.” In his early years in the House, he often worked behind the scenes on substantive issues. After Republicans won control of Congress in 1994, Frank started spending much more time on the floor, pouncing on the new majority’s mistakes, criticizing its policies, and taking it to task when he felt its treatment of the minority was unfair.
Much of his focus in recent years has been on issues involving the House Financial Services Committee. He became the panel’s ranking member in 2003 and its chairman in 2007, after Democrats became the House majority. The committee has not been as partisan as many in Congress, and Frank has frequently cooperated with Republicans. He worked with Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., now the ranking member, on debt relief for poor countries. Frank joined with the late Paul Gillmor, an Ohio Republican, to prevent Wal-Mart from getting into the banking business. He mastered the complex subjects covered by the committee: securities, corporate governance, accounting issues, and insurance. The regulatory matters that come before the committee are heavily lobbied, the negative effects of bad decisions can be long-lasting, and many issues do not break down along party lines.
Unlike previous Democrats who have chaired this committee—notably Wright Patman of Texas in the 1960s and 1970s—Frank believes in the efficiency and productivity of markets. “I think people may misunderstand what being a liberal means. I really do believe in the free market. You need inequality in the capitalist system, but we are at a point now where we are getting more inequality than is necessary for efficiency or socially helpful. The role of government should put some limits on that inequality, through raising the minimum wage, encouraging unions, providing public-sector programs that help people go to college,” he says. Frank has argued that the U.S. economy is at an “inflection point” where it is easier to create wealth than jobs. During the 2006 election season, he spoke frequently about the need for a “grand bargain” between business and liberals. Such pro-growth policies as free-trade agreements and tax cuts, in his view, have tended to widen economic inequality. His grand bargain would have Republicans accept a hike in the minimum wage, a tax increase on high-income earners, and union certification based on the signatures of a majority of workers rather than a secret-ballot election. It would have Democrats accept free-trade agreements with labor and environmental measures that meet “minimal standards of civility,” while accepting foreign direct investment in the United States without restriction. “I want to get the people who have been concerned about equity to support growth policies and the people who have been chafing that we aren’t doing enough for growth to support policies that provide equity,” Frank says. He can claim that he has been carrying out his side of the bargain: He has supported many free-trade agreements and has trenchantly criticized and voted against farm subsidies backed by most Democrats. He argues that “employer-paid health care is a mistake” that “depresses wages”—a point that former Republican President George W. Bush was fond of making.
In the majority, Frank initially focused on the credit crunch for housing, and then moved on to even more difficult challenges in the real estate and banking industries and in the overall economy. As the nation headed toward recession in September 2007, he won House approval of a bill designed to expand homeownership by easing loan rates to borrowers who were suffering from the meltdown in the subprime mortgage market. The next month, Frank won passage, with Republican support, of a bill to create an affordable-housing trust fund for low-income families, with the goal of producing 1.5 million housing units in the next decade. After the collapse of the investment bank Bear Stearns in March 2008, Frank moved a bill requiring investment banking houses to hold larger capital reserves similar to commercial banks. Major damage to the financial system “was done by inadequate regulation,” he said. In July 2008, as federal mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac faced major capital losses, Frank moved to increase their credit lines and to give regulators broader oversight of the two housing banks. “This will begin to lay the groundwork for a turnaround in the housing market and hopefully in the broader economy as well,” he said.
In September 2008, Frank survived a major legislative test after Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson Jr. and Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke told congressional leaders in a dramatic late-night session in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office that swift congressional action was needed to prevent several large financial firms from going under. The two recommended a plan for the government to purchase the bad assets of the financial institutions. Frank predicted quick agreement on the proposal, initially estimated to cost $700 billion. “It will be bipartisan, bicameral, bi-everything,” he vowed. The subsequent discussions proved harrowing, with a toxic mix of presidential campaign politics, congressional pre-election jitters in both parties, a roller-coaster ride (mostly down) on Wall Street, and spreading fears of financial panic.
While Frank played a central role in crafting the bailout, he warned Republicans of the need for bipartisan support. “This is a Bush administration initiative,” he said just hours before the September 29 vote. To Frank’s embarrassment and dismay, 95 Democrats voted against the deal and it collapsed, 205-228, in a rank-and-file rebuke of leaders of both parties. The Dow Jones industrial average dropped 777 points that day, its worst single-day point loss ever. Frank and the other negotiators went back to work on the bill and agreed to add $150 billion in tax cuts that the Senate favored. Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama telephoned recalcitrant House Democrats to urge their support. Four days later, the House passed the bailout legislation, with only 63 Democrats voting no. A veteran House Democrat later complained that one of the problems with the initial bill had been Frank trying to run “a one-man show.”
By early 2009, Frank had taken such criticism to heart. He launched his committee on a mission to pass the most sweeping overhaul of banking and financial industry regulation since the Great Depression. The legislation was aimed at averting the kind of abuse-fueled meltdown that led to the government bailout the year before. Frank led months of endless give-and-take between liberals who wanted more sweeping reforms and Democratic conservatives who supported a lesser role for government. He also had to overcome the objections of powerful financial firms and their many friends on the committee For example, he worked out a compromise with conservatives over more stringent regulation on the trading of so-called derivatives, the risky financial instruments that played a role in the economic crisis. In December 2009, Frank brought to the floor an overhaul bill that passed 223 to 202, although without a single Republican vote.
The legislation, 1,300 pages in length, created a new agency to protect consumers from unfair and abusive lending practices, gave the government more power to break up reeling financial firms thought to be “too big to fail,” and also required companies to set aside certain amounts in capital reserves. Like many Democrats, Frank has been dismayed at the widening gap between executives’ and workers’ compensation, but he opposed having the government set limits. The legislation incorporated his idea of giving shareholders an advisory vote on executive compensation, and also banned “imprudently risky” pay incentives. In 2010, the bill faced major hurdles in the Senate, where there was stiff opposition to the creation of a new consumer protection agency. Still, House passage of one of the Obama administration’s top priorities was a major achievement for Frank.
As one of the House’s most productive chairmen and a trusted confidant of Speaker Pelosi, Frank was constantly at her side in meetings with top officials of the Bush and Obama administrations. “They understand each other and have similar political backgrounds. Urban, ethnic, political,” said a House insider who knows both members. “With that common background, they can communicate well, and they share the same values. Plus, humor helps.” But even with his weighty responsibilities, Frank showed some independence. When House Rules Committee Chairwoman Louise Slaughter of New York rejected Frank’s plea to permit Republicans to offer modest amendments to a flood insurance bill in 2007, he criticized her decision on the House floor.
For all his professional accomplishments, Frank’s personal life once threatened to end his career. In 1987, in a seemingly casual answer to a reporter’s question, Frank disclosed that he is gay. Then in 1989, The Washington Times newspaper reported that Frank had employed as a personal aide a male prostitute and convicted drug user, Steve Gobie, who was also living in Frank’s apartment. He admitted paying Gobie but said he was careful never to use official or campaign funds. He also said he had ejected Gobie from his apartment. Frank voluntarily submitted to an investigation by the House Standards of Official Conduct (Ethics) Committee, which resulted in two minor charges. The committee recommended a reprimand but not censure. Frank made a contrite appearance before the House in July 1990, and the chamber voted 287-141 against censure. The vote for reprimand was 408-18. ‘‘I think members will agree that I have always had a reputation for honesty, not always tact or tolerance,’’ Frank said in his remarks to the House.
Frank is now the leading House legislator on gay-rights issues. When the issue of gays in the military was raised in 1992, Frank, to the disappointment of many in the gay community, said he thought that allowing homosexuals to openly serve would not be accepted by most people in Congress or the Pentagon. But in the years since, Frank has criticized the military as the number of service members discharged for homosexuality increased. He has long sponsored a bill to allow benefits for same-sex partners of federal employees. Frank also hailed the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s decision in 2003 that led to the legalization of same-sex marriage in that state. After 11 states passed bans on same-sex marriage, Frank said he thought that the gay movement made a mistake by engaging in mass weddings of same-sex couples. In 2009, he criticized as “deeply offensive and unfair” President-elect Obama’s decision to invite evangelical pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his inauguration. Warren has compared homosexual sex to incest. “I think it was wrong to single [Warren] out for this mark of respect,” Frank said.
In 2004, Frank was opposed for re-election by a former talk-radio host who claimed that changes Frank made to immigration law in the 1980s allowed the legal entry of the September 11 hijackers. Frank rebutted that by pointing out they could have been barred from entering under existing law. That year, Frank spent $350,000 on television ads, but less out of fear of losing his seat than out of a desire to gain more statewide name identification in case Democratic Sen. John Kerry was elected president. He may well have run for Kerry’s Senate seat. Frank won re-election 78%-22%, carrying every city and town in his district, including four towns that voted for Bush for president. In late 2009, Frank became one of the few members of Congress to generate sufficient interest to warrant a biography. Author Stuart Weisberg published Barney Frank: The Story of America’s Only Left-Handed, Gay, Jewish Congressman.