Barney Frank: Assessing a controversial legacy

The Democratic Representative of Massachusetts plans to retire from Congress in 2012, after serving for 32 years.

Congress is losing one of its smartest members, said Jay Newton-Small in Democratic Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts announced this week that after 32 years, he will retire from Congress in 2012. Frank’s razor-sharp wit and intimidating intelligence could have “put Machiavelli to shame,” and he put both to good use during his decade on the House Financial Services Committee and in his many TV appearances. It was Frank, for example, who once observed that Republicans who want to criminalize abortion and eviscerate poverty programs believe that “life begins at conception, and ends at birth.” Though Frank is often bitingly funny, said Jonathan Bernstein in Washington​, he’s a politician of true substance, and capped a long career of writing major legislation with the Dodd-Frank financial regulation package in 2010. Frank also deserves a place in the history books for becoming, in 1987, the first member of Congress to voluntarily come out of the closet. “He’ll be missed.”

Not by us, said The Wall Street Journal in an editorial. Frank will forever be known as the “nation’s leading protector of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac,” the government-backed housing giants that poured billions into mortgages for people who couldn’t afford them, triggering the housing crash of 2008. While resisting any reform of those agencies, the strident liberal famously announced that he would “roll the dice” when it came to subsidized mortgages for the poor. Well, “the dice came up snake eyes for the housing market and the U.S. economy.” His legislation only added to the nation’s pain, said Frank helped craft the TARP bailout and the president’s health-care bill, and his “punitive” financial-reform bill won’t prevent future economic crises. Frank—who also once got caught in a gay prostitution scandal—was “an embarrassment, a reckless gambler, and a legislative malefactor.”

Clearly, Frank made a lot of enemies, said Susan Milligan in Because he came out when that was considered political suicide, he was known for years as “the gay congressman.” But by the time Frank became chair of the powerful House Financial Services Committee in 2007, he’d proved himself such an adept and effective legislator that “his sexuality became, finally, a nonissue.” Thanks to him, gay and lesbian congressmen and women “can be defined not by whom they love, but by what they accomplish.” That’s his greatest legacy.

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