A Broader Bully Pulpit

By John Gallagher

Originally published on Advocate.com August 13 2008 12:00 AM ET

By any measure
the housing relief bill that passed Congress and was
signed by President Bush in late July was a remarkable
achievement. The bill, which includes a program to
help hundreds of thousands of families facing
foreclosure, is an unprecedented intervention meant to stop
the free fall of the nation’s housing market.
That it was able to attract bipartisan support and
avoid being vetoed by the president is testament to
the skills of Barney Frank, the openly gay Democrat who
serves as the chairman of the House Committee on
Financial Services.

“He is one
of the giants of the Congress, a real legislator,”
says Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings
Institution. “People think of him as this
ideological liberal, but the fact is that Barney Frank
understands what it takes to legislate. He understands what
it takes to lead.”

Currently in his
14th term in Congress, Frank is at the center of Capitol
Hill’s response to the faltering economy. The House
committee that he chairs oversees all aspects of the
financial services industry -- including banking,
insurance, public housing, and real estate as well as
the Federal Reserve, the U.S. Treasury, and the Securities
and Exchange Commission -- making the committee one of
the most powerful in Congress. And Frank’s
accomplishments as chairman may establish a broader, more
profound legacy for the politician synonymous with gay
advocacy.

“His
committee is influential, and any person who is chair of it
would have wide-ranging authority,” says Larry
Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the
University of Virginia. What has distinguished Frank
is his ability to cross political lines in order to get
things done, often working with Republicans and
winning praise from representatives who disagree with
him, sometimes strenuously, on gay issues.
“Congressman Frank frequently goes out of his
way to reach across the aisle and work with all
members,” says Texas Republican representative Ron
Paul, the former 2008 presidential candidate who with
Frank cosponsored legislation on online gambling.

At first glance,
sexual orientation would seem beside the point in the
debate about the housing and financial services markets --
except that Frank makes a point of reminding everyone
he works with that he is gay. In the process he
reaches both political circles and the highest echelons
of Wall Street.

Barney Frank smaller (Getty) | Advocate.com

“The only
one who makes it an issue is me, because I want to remind
them that the person they should be grateful to is a
gay man who has a boyfriend,” says Frank, who
consciously discusses his boyfriend, Jim Ready, the
way his colleagues talk about their wives.
“It’s never been a negative issue. I
want to remind people that’s who I am.”

That includes
using his trademark wit. When asked why the White House has
been reluctant to support more government intervention in
financial markets, Frank quips, “It’s
like asking me to judge the Miss America contest -- if
your heart’s not in it, you don’t do a very
good job.”

The housing
relief bill was “very close to the top” in
terms of the most complex issues on which he’s
worked, Frank says. Successfully steering the bill
through the House meant delicate negotiations with
Republican representatives and the White House as well
as with Senate members working on their own version of
the bill. In addition, a wide range of disparate
interests -- from the mortgage industry to low-income
housing advocates -- also weighed in on the measure.
Frank sees it as a sign of the bill’s success
that after it passed he received congratulations from
both Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson and Sheila
Crowley, head of the National Low Income Housing
Coalition.

Frank is famously
impatient with anyone who doesn’t meet his level of
expectations, but his intelligence has earned him the
respect of the business community. He’s
frequently invited to speak at corporations where he
interacts with powerful individuals for whom gay and lesbian
rights are not likely to be foremost.

For the
foreseeable future, Frank will likely be able to keep using
his platform as committee chair as a reminder that gay
rights also matter. “His power depends on the
Democrats remaining in power, which they will for the
next two years at least,” says Sabato. But just as
important, he says, Frank clearly relishes his work.
“I think he really enjoys the House of
Representatives. He’s a classic man of the
House.”