[Editor’s Note: In anticipation of Rep. Barney Frank’s retirement announcement, we revisit his candid May 2011 Playboy magazine interview.]
United States congressman Barney Frank is inarguably one of the most powerful and effective legislators in the House of Representatives. What’s arguable is whether he’s a good guy or a bad guy. Like so much in Washington, the answer usually comes down to party lines. Democrats tend to love him. Many Republicans don’t. But unique in an era of vitriolic partisan politics, even many of Frank’s detractors have praised his intelligence and eloquence. One Bush administration official called him “scary smart.” Republican Dana Rohrabacher described him as “very fair,” which is high praise coming from one of the most conservative House members. Frank has many admirers inside and outside the Beltway. Surveys of Capitol Hill staffers named him the “brainiest” and “most eloquent” member of the House. In a New Yorker profile of Frank, journalist Jeffrey Toobin wrote that in Congress Frank plays the “role of wise guy and wise man.” And a recent biography of Frank describes him as “the most unique and fascinating, certainly the most entertaining political figure in Washington.”
In the 30 years since he was first elected to Congress, Frank has been an advocate for the poor, has worked on many fronts to improve education and health care, was Bill Clinton’s staunchest defender throughout the Monica Lewinsky scandal, pushed for the legalization of marijuana, hammered away at both Bush administrations for their wars in Iraq and has done more for gay rights than any other politician. Although he had been at the center of many national debates and instrumental in passing significant legislation, he was never before as prominent as he was in 2007 when he became chairman of the powerful House Financial Services Committee, which oversees the nation’s financial institutions, including banks and the securities, insurance and housing industries. Frank was on the hottest seat in the country when his chairmanship coincided with America’s worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
Few Americans need to be reminded of the economic calamities of the past half decade. As HFS chairman, Frank was charged with working with the administration, Congress, economists and others to figure out how the disaster happened and—most important—how to fix it and prevent it from happening again.
Frank worked with the Bush administration and, after the 2008 election, the Obama administration, to develop, hone and help pass bailouts and other emergency measures. For his efforts he received a great deal of praise—the documentary Inside Job singles Frank out as one of the few heroes of the financial crisis—but he was also criticized, especially for his past defense of the government-backed mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which all but collapsed. Some attacks were virulent, none more so than the one from a raging Bill O’Reilly when Frank was a guest on The O’Reilly Factor. In the exchange, immortalized in a popular YouTube video, O’Reilly outdid himself even by his normal bombastic standards, shrieking at Frank and calling him a coward. Frank, when he could get a word in, chided O’Reilly’s “stupidity” and charged that he was “too dumb” to understand complex economics.
The highlight of Frank’s chairmanship was when, in close collaboration with then Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, he pushed through historic financial-reform legislation that bears his and a Senate colleague’s names. The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act increases the oversight and regulation of banks and other financial institutions and creates a new agency to protect consumers from practices that helped lead to foreclosures and bankruptcies. Many economists praise Dodd-Frank, saying it could prevent a similar financial crisis in the future. If it survives.
After the 2010 midterm elections, when Republicans took over Congress, Frank lost his chairmanship. The new Congress now has Dodd-Frank in its sights. Without control of the Senate, never mind the White House, it’s unlikely Republicans could repeal the law, but they have the power to defund and therefore nullify many of its provisions. Now Frank is leading Democratic Party efforts to protect the reforms—as he describes it, “to mitigate the damage the Republicans can do.”
Frank, from Bayonne, New Jersey, served in the Massachusetts state legislature from 1972 until he became a U.S. congressman in 1981. One of his first campaign slogans played off his famous frumpiness: “Neatness isn’t everything.” Apparently not, because he has won every election since. Frank came out of the closet in 1987 as one of the first openly gay members of Congress, and he and others predicted it would end his political career. However, Frank handily won the next election with his largest margin to date. Since then he has been an outspoken advocate for gay rights. He was the driving force that led to the recent repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
Last year Frank, who is 71, said he was considering retiring from Congress. But in early 2011 he announced he will seek reelection next year because he has “unfinished business, including doing what I can to make sure the Republicans don’t dismantle financial regulations and thereby set us up for another economic catastrophe.” Given this and many other national and international issues Frank is at the epicenter of, we went back to him for a second Playboy Interview. (The first was in 1999, not long after the House impeached Clinton.) We tapped Contributing Editor David Sheff, who conducted our earlier interview, for the assignment. Here’s Sheff’s report:
“This is one of the few times playboy has gone back to a politician for a second interview , in part because they never last that long in office. Many congressional seats are like those in a game of musical chairs, but not Frank’s. Since our first interview, his power as a congressman has increased. He hasn’t slowed—quite the opposite. I spent a typical day with him, which was filled with nonstop committee hearings, meetings with colleagues and constituents and interviews with CNBC and the BBC, all sandwiched between congressional votes. Frank says being in Congress is less satisfying now that the Republicans are in power, but part of him thrives in a familiar role as outsider and opposition. ‘I’m used to being in the minority,’ he once said. ‘I’m a left-handed gay Jew.’ ”
PLAYBOY: After the 2010 midterm elections, which ended your party’s hold on the House, is your job less fun?
FRANK: It’s not less fun, but it is less stressful. Being chairman is more work. Getting the reform bill was a lot of work because it was substantive and complex. There were many interests fighting against us, but it was important for the country. The stress level was high. There wasn’t a lot of sleep. When I was chairman, there were 71 members of the committee. When I went to bed at night, the number I thought about was 36, the number needed to win every vote. It was juggling, debating, deal making. It continued even after we completed the bill because we then had to replicate it to work it out with the Senate. There’s still a lot to do, of course, but it’s different. For now it’s about counterpunching. They set the agenda, and we respond.
PLAYBOY: Are you satisfied with your tenure as chairman?
FRANK: We accomplished a lot of important things at a moment when the country was in economic collapse. We reversed things. Now our job is to protect what we can so it doesn’t happen again.
PLAYBOY: What could make it happen again?
FRANK: The financial-reform bill that we passed has in place protections that will prevent the excesses that caused the crisis. It provides regulations and consumer protections. It’s all threatened by the Republicans, who want to dismantle it by defunding it.
PLAYBOY: Republicans argue your bill is a job killer and detrimental to the economy.
FRANK: It’s the same old thing they always say even though it has been discredited. Most sane people, including economists, agree the collapse was a result of a lack of regulations. But Republicans don’t want regulation. They say the free market is always right, that government is always wrong. They don’t want any regulation whatsoever, but that’s what got us into this mess in the first place.
PLAYBOY: What provisions of financial reform are threatened?
FRANK: Republicans are trying to re-deregulate by reducing funding to the SEC, which has new responsibilities for investor protection, and reducing funding for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. They want to defund these commissions, which are in place to regulate hedge funds and derivatives. They also want to reduce funding for the Bureau of Consumer Protection. I’m less worried about the consumer protection provisions; the Republicans will probably stay away from most of them because it will look bad if they go after consumers. Americans wanted credit card reform, but the other two.… There’s been all this talk about the shadow banking system, which is part of what caused the economic crash. We succeeded in finding ways to end it, but the Republicans want it back. I think of the old radio show: What evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows.… What evil lurks in the heart of their shadow financial system? We were trying to do away with it, but the Republicans are working to ensure it stays how it was, which caused the mess in the first place.
PLAYBOY: Besides losing the Democratic majority in the House, how else have things changed with the new Congress, especially as it includes members of the Tea Party?
FRANK: The Republicans are trying to hold their side together, which is difficult because the leadership has to make the Tea Party types happy. It isn’t easy for them. They aren’t able to move forward in ways they want to because of the instability inherent in that dynamic.
PLAYBOY: Twelve years ago, when asked about the overall caliber of members of Congress, you said Americans were by and large well represented, that our elected representatives were “a smart group.” Is that still true?
FRANK: I’d say it’s a little less smart. There are people around now who have been elected to the House who wouldn’t have been in the past.
PLAYBOY: Why? Many people see the election as a referendum on your party and President Obama. The bottom line is that the public didn’t like what you guys did.
FRANK: The problem was that at the time of the election, the economy was weak. Things had been progressing, getting better, but then we were hit by the crisis in Greece. It was bad timing. Also, we were punished because of the bailouts, which made people angry. The bailouts began under Bush, of course, but people’s memories are short. There was a perception that the rich were getting richer while everyone else was suffering. It’s ironic because the Republicans support the executive salaries that people rightfully hate. They don’t want to tax the rich. People support the Republicans against their own interests. But people are angry, which I understand. So it was a combination of the bad economy and anger because the people who caused the bad economy appeared to be getting rewarded.
PLAYBOY: In retrospect, were the bailouts the right strategy?
FRANK: The strategy has been vindicated. Each one—AIG, TARP, the banks, the car companies. There was a big problem that would have been impossible to fix overnight, and it had no one solution, but we stopped things from getting as bad as they could have. The entire economy was at risk of complete collapse, and we stopped that.
PLAYBOY: Republicans say financial reform and the health care bill will cost jobs at a time when unemployment is still high.
FRANK: It’s nonsense. It’s the same right-wing ideology. It’s a Republican mantra, but nothing we did will cost jobs.
PLAYBOY: You said you understand voter anger. Do you understand the reaction that led to a Congress with 35 newly elected members who have never before held political office? People were fed up.
FRANK: Yes, and when things aren’t going well, Americans want change.
PLAYBOY: What’s the impact of all those untested and inexperienced members in the House?
FRANK: I haven’t felt an impact yet, but the Republican leadership has. It has had to pull back and adopt positions it never would have before. It hasn’t been able to maintain control. The Republican leadership needs to build itself to the point that it can exercise some restraint on its extremist members. I don’t know if it will be able to. In my opinion, the extremism is destructive because there’s no room for compromise—or never mind compromise; there’s no room for civil debate. The big difference is that many of these people don’t believe the differences we have are legitimate disagreements between reasonable people. It used to be that way. Now the Republicans have to take a far angrier tone. There’s no working together. They don’t accept give-and-take. Moderate Republicans have to worry about appearing moderate; they have to hate us.
PLAYBOY: Are you saying moderate Republicans aren’t being honest about their own positions and their rhetoric is only to placate the extreme right?
FRANK: For some, it’s legitimate. For some, it’s posturing. At Ted Kennedy’s funeral, Orrin Hatch boasted in an almost unseemly fashion about what a great friend he was. He told all these stories in which Kennedy was the hero. Now he’s repudiating the notion that he can work with Democrats.
PLAYBOY: There has always been angry and divisive politics. Are things worse now?
FRANK: It’s been worse ever since Newt Gingrich took over the Republicans. He realized the party wouldn’t make inroads the way it was going, so it was very calculated. He said, “We’re never going to win until we demonize the Democrats. Stop saying they’re honorable people with whom we disagree and start saying they’re bad people, evil people.”