Rep. Barney Frank Dives Right In On the Bailout

The House Financial Services Committee chairman has piquant views on, well, just about everything.
The House Financial Services Committee chairman has piquant views on, well, just about everything. (By Brendan Smialowski -- Getty Images)
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By Libby Copeland
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 27, 2008

You wanna know what Barney Frank thinks? Oh, Barney Frank will tell you what he thinks.

"You're missing the point," Frank says impatiently.

"You guys aren't listening," Frank says exasperatedly.

The House Democrats' point man on the bailout bill negotiations is slumped in a chair outside the House chamber, exhibiting his usual inelegant posture. About 10 reporters have swarmed around to ask him about the latest in the negotiations with Republicans.

Mr. Chairman, we understand House GOP negotiator Roy Blunt has sent a staffer to the negotiations -- is that a staffer from his office, specifically?

"No, from the Salvation Army," Frank says.

Mr. Chairman, do you think John McCain will be able to spin the idea that he swooped in and saved the bailout bill?

"It depends on whether you guys get fooled or not and write that [bleep]," Frank says. He goes off on the Republican presidential nominee, who announced that he was briefly suspending his campaign this week to come to Washington and help fix the economy in the middle of delicate congressional negotiations on the $700 billion package. Depending on whom you talk to, this either made things better or it totally messed things up and was "the phoniest thing I ever heard." (Guess who says the latter.)

"Before McCain came in, we thought we were working," Frank says. "McCain comes in, it gets screwed up, now McCain leaves -- I dunno, it's like Jimmy Piersall."

A reporter in the back starts to interrupt with an unrelated question, but another one, perhaps more familiar with the rhetorical stylings of the Massachusetts congressman, shushes him with a flapping hand. Everyone wants to hear about Jimmy Piersall, including those who have no idea who he is. Frank's metaphors can be quite snarky and delightful. This one is about Piersall's years as an outfielder with the Boston Red Sox in the '50s and how he would cure his own boredom by waiting until the very last second to snag fly balls -- which is kind of like McCain, Frank says, swooping in with drama at the very end.

The metaphor ends with: "If he gets away with it, you guys ought to be fired." (At least, it sounds like he says "fired." Maybe "tired"? It's hard to hear Frank sometimes; he's a little mumbly. Rush Limbaugh did a mocking imitation of him recently -- it was Barney Frank by way of Daffy Duck.)

In addition to negotiating with Republicans and the White House and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, Frank, who is chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, has been all over the airwaves this week. On MSNBC, he said the White House's original proposal read like "a Dick Cheney wish list: 'I'm in charge and I'll do whatever I want.' " On NPR, he said that when he suggested the bill should limit executive compensation, the White House acted as if "I told the chief rabbi in Jerusalem to eat bacon on Yom Kippur." He told interviewers that the Republican Party was in a "complete shambles" and accused McCain ally Lindsey Graham of telling "a lie," which he said he understood, because Graham was just trying to be McCain's "faithful little jerk," jerk being one of McCain's deepest expressions of endearment.

Frank vacillates between interrupting and patiently discussing the finer points of the nation's economic troubles -- the auto industry's credit crisis, the ripple effect of subprime mortgages. His sense of urgency is palpable: This bailout and the 1998 Clinton impeachment trial are the two most important political efforts he's been intimately involved in, he says, in nearly 28 years in the House. Years of Republican deregulation got the nation into this mess, he says, and it's time to fix things. Though he says it's not clear if all the voters will appreciate that.

"You don't get credit for a disaster averted," he says.

Frank's indignation is punctuated by moments of self-deprecation. (Told a reporter is doing a story on him, he says, "If I'd known, I would've gotten a haircut. My boyfriend yells at me -- 'You need a haircut.' ") He says he's not sure how quickly a resolution will come on this bailout, and this worries him because he knows that many of his fellow Jewish members of Congress will be leaving soon to go home to celebrate the Jewish New Year, which starts Monday evening. ("It's a well-known rule," he says. "God will only hear your prayers if you're in your congressional district.")

He's been working since before 7 a.m., he says -- went on TV, picked up his laundry, talked to Paulson, went to a meeting with fellow Democrats. He goes now to the TV gallery to do an appearance on a Boston television station. One of the televisions there is tuned to CNN; the scrawl reads: "DEAL OR NO DEAL?"

Barney Frank, real deal, keeps working on that.

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