WASHINGTON — The last time Rep. Barney Frank served as the ranking Democrat on a GOP-controlled Financial Services Committee, he enjoyed a close working relationship with then Chairman Michael Oxley that saw several large bipartisan votes out of the full House.
As Frank once again prepares to assume that role next year, no one is expecting history to repeat itself.
In the four years while the Democrats were in control, the committee has become increasingly partisan, due partly to the way the financial crisis catapulted banking issues to the political forefront as well as the personalities involved in both political parties.
Far from being partners, observers said Frank and whoever the GOP picks as chairman — either front-runner Rep. Spencer Bachus, who is currently the ranking member, or Rep. Ed Royce — are likely to be at loggerheads, exacerbating the threat of gridlock hanging over financial services issues.
"That committee has gone from being one of the least partisan to one of the most partisan committees in the time that I've been here," said Rep. Brad Miller, a North Carolina Democrat. "I think because the issues that we've dealt with have been at the center of politics and because of the people, the personalities, it has become just much more partisan."
In interviews with several members of the committee, congressional aides, industry representatives and policy analysts, it is clear that the change in committee dynamics is the result of several elements.
The situation is significantly different from when Oxley chaired the committee from 2001 to 2006, when Frank was seen as very effective in the minority, winning housing provisions and helping to shape key bills like the renewal of the Fair Credit Reporting Act.
During that time, banking bills were seldom high profile, and Oxley sought to have large bipartisan votes in the House in the hopes of helping a bill gain momentum in the Senate. As a result, the Ohio Republican offered concessions to Democrats that earned Frank's support on a wide range of financial services initiatives, including deposit insurance reform, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act.
Even when Frank became chairman in 2007 some level of cooperation between the two parties persisted, as Frank worked with Bachus, the panel's lead Republican, to pass a bill that would reform subprime mortgage lending, even letting the GOP lawmaker write the broker registry section of the bill.
But as the financial crisis gained steam, banking issues, which were traditionally nonpartisan, moved to the political front lines. The result was a different dynamic, particularly in the House. As the issues became more high profile, both parties took harder stances that often appeared to preclude much cooperation.
While a few Republican senators tried to negotiate on regulatory reform legislation, for example, the same was not true among members of the House, where the GOP outright opposed the bill.
Frank argues that he ceased to receive any kind of cooperation from the GOP side, which tacked to the right politically.
"The kind of cooperation that I was able to have with Mike Oxley … I didn't get the same kind of cooperation from our minority that I think Mike Oxley got from us," Frank said in a brief interview last week in between votes on the House floor. "I don't expect it to be the same thing. They've moved much further to the right."
The panel has seen significant change during the past four years. A handful of more moderate and centrist Republicans have left like Reps. Deborah Pryce, Jim Leach and Sue Kelly, giving rise to more conservative members who have increased pressure on Bachus and other Republican members to oppose Frank. Those include Rep. Jeb Hensarling, who will be the chairman of the Republican conference next year, Rep. Scott Garrett, who was the lead Republican on the capital markets subcommittee, and Tom Price, R-Ga. the current chairman of the Republican Study Committee, the GOP's conservative caucus.
"The people that frankly Oxley thought were disruptive are now running the committee," Frank said. "What had been sort of a very conservative minority has now become the dominant position on the committee."
But many Republicans blame Frank for the lack of cooperation. They said that particularly after 2008, when the Democrats took control of the White House and expanded their majorities in the House and Senate, Frank was less interested in listening to Republican ideas.
Rep. Judy Biggert, an Illinois Republican who has served as the ranking Republican on the financial institutions, housing and oversight subcommittees during Frank's chairmanship said that the Massachusetts Democrat went so fast on so many fronts, many Republicans felt they didn't have a fair opportunity to weigh in.
"We never really had the opportunity to participate as much as we should have and so many bills were rushed without having enough time to look at them and so they had to come back and do some repairs," said Biggert, who is considered one of the more bipartisan members of the panel. "I wish we had spent more time on some issues and had more input."
Garrett, who is expected to chair the capital markets subcommittee next year, said that Frank was more eager to cut off Republican arguments when he led the committee.
"Barney tried to run an efficient committee. What's that expression, you don't suffer fools gladly? He may have had a slightly quicker gavel when Republicans were going on a little bit than when the Democrats were," Garrett said. "I think next year we'll likewise try to run things efficiently."
For his part, Frank said he did reach out to the GOP on housing issues in particular, but said it was impossible to work with many Republicans because they flatly opposed his initiatives, particularly on regulatory reform.
"If you talk to the housing people we did," Frank said. "In the housing area there was more cooperation. But part of it was they just moved too far to the right so it was not — we tried but they just weren't interested in compromise."
Bachus, meanwhile, who was once lauded for his ability to work with Democrats, found himself sharply criticized by many on the right for doing so. As a result, observers do not expect him to seek much Democratic cooperation if he does chair the panel.
Miller, the North Carolina Democrat, said that Bachus appears to have little freedom to negotiate with Frank without alienating some of the most active GOP committee members.
"The first two years, Barney and Spencer Bachus had a very good working relationship and I think Barney still gets along with Spencer as do I," Miller said. "But it became apparent that the right wing, the Republican Study Committee Group, was looking over Spencer's shoulder on everything and very much thought he was too willing to compromise with Democrats."
In an interview on the House floor last week, Bachus acknowledged it would be difficult to find common ground, but blames Democrats for moving more to the left.
"If they continue to advocate more regulatory, more bureaucracy and less competition, more command-and-control government, we probably will be cordial but have a very contrasting voting pattern," Bachus said.
He is also clearly sensitive to criticism from some corners that he did not sufficiently stand up to Frank.
When asked about his relationship with Frank, Bachus said sarcastically: "I'm just a foil for him. He just runs over me intellectually."
When pressed, Bachus said they have mutual respect for each other and credited Frank with including him on the subprime bill and for giving Republicans room to tout their alternative to Dodd-Frank.
"We have a cordial relationship. We disagree fundamentally on our votes but we respect each other," he said. "On the financial reform bill he gave us a better opportunity to offer our own position. He and I worked together on subprime lending and I was criticized by my own party … but I don't expect we'll agree on a lot of our contributions."
Frank, too, sees himself largely playing defense, trying to protect key provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act. "We can't advance an agenda. We aren't in power," Frank said. "I regret the fact that a lot of the housing stuff I had hoped to do this year got displaced by the financial regulation. … Sort of preserving the housing we now have, I think that's what I would hope to do. Beyond that, we'll be on the defense obviously as they try to undermine implementation of some of the reform bill."
Rep. Al Green, D-Texas, said it would be a mistake to count Frank out of the process.
"Chairman Frank is of such large stature that he cannot be ignored, so I don't really have a lot of concern about the chairman having his positions be considered," he said. "He understands the process, he understands the people, he generally speaking will have his positions given consideration."
Not everyone has given up hope for bipartisan comity. Garrett said he plans to hold bipartisan roundtable discussions with important policy stakeholders, like the capital markets subcommittee held when Rep. Paul Kanjorski, D-Pa., ran the panel.
"We're going to try to," work together, he said. "The theme is let's hear what people's ideas are and throw them up the proverbial flagpole. … We will certainly be amenable and open to on the floor here and in the committee to different ideas and different solutions to the problems in the financial markets and I don't claim to have the answers to all these."
Biggert agrees, saying she hopes banking issues can once again be more bipartisan.
"I think we really need to have a bipartisan effort on major bills and with regulatory reform we really didn't," she said. "At least, everybody is saying everything has to be transparent and open and if we are going to do that we need to work together and from the start — not just saying 'oh here's the bill we are going to do it tomorrow.' "
But Garrett said that doesn't mean bipartisanship is the ideal on every bill. Referring to Oxley, he said, "Mike's goal was to try to get almost all of our, or as much of our legislation through with complete bipartisan support, at least it seemed that way to me," he said. "And I don't think that's realistic in today's environment."
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