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Why I'll Miss Barney Frank

Representative Barney Frank announced his retirement today. And if you’ve followed the coverage, on the web or on television, then you may have seen this episode.

It’s from a town hall meeting in Massachusetts, during the infamous late summer of 2009, when right-wing activists started showing up at meetings of Democratic lawmakers to protest health care reform. When a woman likened health care reform to the laws of Nazi Germany, Frank dismissed her in his customary way – bluntly and loudly, although with some wit:

When you ask me that question, I am going to revert to my ethnic heritage and answer your question with a question. On what planet do you spend most of your time? … You stand there with a picture of the president defaced to look like Hitler and compare the effort to increase health care to the Nazis, my answer to you is … it is a tribute to the First Amendment that this kind of vile, contemptible nonsense is so freely propagated. … M’am, trying to have a conversation with you would be like trying to argue with a dining room table. I have no interest in doing it.

This episode was not out of character for Frank. Pretty much every journalist who has covered him (including, once or twice, me) has encountered similar derision, usually in response to a question that Frank has judged insufficiently sophisticated – or just plain dumb. I imagine lobbyists, staff, and colleagues have had similar experiences. But you know what? That’s the way it should be. Frank does not suffer fools. And Washington has plenty of fools.

Still, it would be a mistake to eulogize Frank’s career in office by focusing exclusively on his brusque manner, however entertaining it has made him, because his legacy is bigger than that.

On Capitol Hill you generally find two types of legislators: The kind who make headlines and the kind that make laws. The former are great on television or the campaign trail, but they can’t negotiate or manage the legislative process. The latter do heroic work in the shadows, so that laws can actually pass. But you almost never see them on the Sunday shows. 

Frank has managed to do both things and to do them well -- as Jonathan Bernstein wrote at the Washington Post, "he's been both a workhorse and a showhorse." At no time was that more apparent than during 2010, when he helped shepherd the financial reform law through the Congress. The rap on the law is that it is not nearly everything it could, or should, be. I suspect Frank would agree. But he also understands that legislative change comes slowly and that, sometimes, it comes in a series of small steps.

As soon as word of Frank’s imminent retirement broke, political professionals assumed he was stepping down for political reasons. He didn’t want to seek reelection in a newly redrawn district, against a well-funded opponent in an anti-incumbent year – and he didn’t see much point in returning to office, given the slim chances that House Democrats would regain the majority.

I have no idea how important, if at all, such factors really were. But I take Frank at his word when he says that one reason to leave is the possibility he could do more for his causes from outside Capitol Hill, as a writer and intellectual advocate, than he could from inside. And that leaves me with mixed feelings.

Oh, I’m glad to hear Frank’s political career won’t end with his time in the House. He is too smart, and too young, to exit the stage now. But I’m also sad for what it says about Congress – and the diminished possibilities for action there.