How Barney Frank Forged a Financial-Reform Bill

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Pete Marovich / ZUMA Press

Representative Barney Frank waits before delivering comments on financial reform at a House and Senate conference committee on June 10, 2010

Some members of Congress are known for their great orations, others for their ability to draft legislation and still others for their work across the aisle. But one of the most uncommon talents on Capitol Hill is the ability to orchestrate a merger between Senate and House versions of legislation. Indeed, so rare has this skill become that big bills in recent years have simply ping-ponged between the chambers until one side, out of weariness, concedes or the bill simply dies.

So the fact that Barney Frank, the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee who has presided over the negotiations on financial reform, demanded that the proceedings be not only open (something that was common decades ago but is rare today) but aired live on C-SPAN shocked Washington. But watching Frank, one can see why he didn't mind making the sausage in public.

Frank cut through the nearly 3,000 pages in combined legislation with a master's skill — and a generous dollop of his trademark sarcasm on the side. He allowed members time to offer amendments and debate, but he cut them off the second their time expired. If someone defied him, he was quick to pound the gavel he continually clutched (upside down) in his left fist. Amazingly, he finished the bill early Friday after just six days of work (though the final one lasted for 20 hours), handing President Obama a much-needed legislative victory.

With his shaggy white hair, Frank joked that his mastery of the conference is simply a function of his inability to focus. "There's one piece of advice I give young people — generally they don't want us pontificating to 'em — try to find a line of work where a central characteristic of your personality is an advantage rather than a disadvantage," the Harvard Law School dropout told Politico last week. "For me, that's a short attention span. A short attention span is a helluva handicap if you're trying to write a Ph.D. thesis, but it is essential if you're going to preside over a legislative conference with 17 issues coming up in a day."

But Frank, who has been in Congress since 1980, is more focused than he'll admit. The son of a New Jersey Turnpike rest-stop manager who loved to debate politics, Frank is known as one of the best debaters in Congress. Not only did he vigilantly control the proceedings, he carefully monitored the effect each amendment would have on the four GOP Senators who had voted for the Senate version of the bill: Maine's Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, Massachusetts' Scott Brown and Iowa's Chuck Grassley. He and his staff queried them continuously on how each decision affected their level of support — since losing any of them could have jeopardized the needed 60-vote majority in the Senate.

That's not to say the self-described liberal, who was accused in 2008 of bringing down the first bank-bailout vote because he was running a one-man show in blocking GOP and Democratic input into the bill, didn't get in his partisan shots. He was happy to exhaust the chairman's privilege of being able to respond to any comment. After most GOP statements, Frank yielded himself 10 seconds — which usually turned into 30 to 45 seconds — and barked out his response. Spencer Bachus, the top Republican on the committee, seemed quite resigned to being steamrolled. "Now, Chairman Frank, as he has in opportunities past, is going to attack us as being on the side of the banks," the Alabama Republican said at one point on Wednesday, defending his opposition to a provision that would tax the banks to help unemployed folks pay their mortgages.

Frank was having none of it. "I welcome the gentleman's conversion to the non-vilification camp," he snapped before launching into a five-minute tirade about why wealthy bankers were responsible for the financial meltdown and therefore shouldn't moan about having to help the furloughed avoid foreclosure in between jobs.

Frank also had little patience for the Republicans' argument that the bill should deal with the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac mess. Whenever anyone tried to bring up the subject of the broken government mortgage-financing giants, Frank cut them off and quickly moved on. "The remedy here is ... as I believe this committee will be recommending, abolishing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in their current form and coming up with a whole new system of housing finance," Frank conceded on Thursday before adding that this bill was not the appropriate place to attempt such a massive overhaul.

While some Republicans have argued, with reason, that the most important decisions were predetermined by Frank and Senate Banking Committee chairman Chris Dodd behind closed doors, it's hard to complain that they didn't get a platform to make their case. Frank has also been careful to stay away from lobbyists during the process, even canceling fundraisers. The public nature of the show made it difficult for Wall Street to demand concessions and helped Frank move the bill to the left. Just before midnight on Thursday, Frank won a relatively tough compromise on the so-called Volcker rule, named for former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, who first suggested barring banks from making speculative investments with their own money; the final compromise allows them to continue to do so, but in much smaller amounts.

The bill will also force banks to spin off to subsidiaries all their non-investment-grade derivatives; though an earlier version of the bill would have included investment-grade products, the compromise was still tougher than one could have imagined a year ago. "Last year, when we were debating it in the House, health care was getting all the attention, and [financial reform] was not as good a bill as I would have liked to bring out because we were not getting public attention," Frank told the committee. "What happened was with the passage of health care, the American public started to focus on this." Frank certainly has everyone's attention now.