Rep. Barney Frank will be remembered for three things: First, he was not only the first openly gay member of Congress but the first involved in a gay-prostitution scandal. Second, he said, “I do not want the same kind of focus on safety and soundness” regarding Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as exercised with regard to other government-affiliated agencies, preferring, as he memorably put it, to “roll the dice a little bit.” Third, he was co-author of the Frank-Dodd financial-reform legislation. Which is to say, Representative Frank will be remembered as an embarrassment, a reckless gambler, and a legislative malefactor.
Representative Frank was not much of a crusader on gay-rights issues, which was just as well. On the substance of those issues, he was on the wrong side. As a symbol, he was toxic — a powerful politician whose homosexual orientation was hardly the most remarkable feature of his private life, which included involvement with a gay hustler and convicted drug dealer whom the congressman was paying for sex, and who ended up running a prostitution operation out of the congressman’s home. Representative Frank was reprimanded by the House for making misleading statements to a Virginia prosecutor on behalf of the prostitute — whom the congressman eventually put on his own payroll — and for having fixed dozens of parking tickets on his behalf. Americans are broadly tolerant of homosexuality; they are rightly less tolerant of prostitution and political corruption. The congressman’s self-pitying account of the episode made the bad situation worse.
But though his private life spilled over into his public duties, it is as a champion of a different kind of pay-for-play operation, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, that the congressman did the most damage to the country. The government-backed mortgage giants were at the center of the housing bubble and the subsequent financial crisis. Representative Frank was a stalwart defender of the organizations, even after the government uncovered “extensive” fraud at Fannie Mae and found that Freddie Mac had illegally channeled funds to its political benefactors. Again, Representative Frank’s personal life intruded into the story: He was sexually involved with a Fannie Mae executive during a time when he was voting on laws affecting the organization. The final cost of the Fannie/Freddie bailouts will run into the hundreds of billions of dollars, and the real damage that the organizations did to the U.S. economy — and the world economy, for that matter — probably is incalculable.
In response to a financial crisis in which he was a significant figure, Representative Frank helped to craft a financial-reform law that bears his name. The drafting of Dodd-Frank began as a punitive measure, evolved into a dispensary of political favors, and in the end did little or nothing to address the problems that led to the 2008–09 crisis or to prevent similar crises in the future. Which means that we may have Barney Frank partly to thank not only for the last financial crisis but for the next one.
From his relatively petty transgressions related to his personal life to his more consequential role in enabling Fannie and Freddie, Representative Frank personifies a great deal of what is wrong with American public life. Though a highly intelligent man, he made the wrong decisions at every turn, and compounded his policy errors with the petty and vindictive style of his politics. Republicans will not miss him. Neither should his Democratic colleagues, his constituents, or the American public that will be paying off the cost of his errors and those of his allies, with interest, for a great many years. We hope that he will find in the obscurity of retirement the grace and wisdom that eluded him as an elected official, but we do not assume that it will be so.