WASHINGTON — If one word best describes Rep. Barney Frank, it may be that he is a "force."
His toughness and acerbic wit are well-known, and many have stories of being the target of his ire. But those who have worked with him and followed his career say his forcefulness is backed up by unique acumen, and a keen understanding of how legislation will impact financial institutions.
"He will be remembered as a real student of banking," said Daniel Forte, the president of the Massachusetts Bankers Association. "He had that dual purpose of understanding, the need of the banking industry to make a profit but at the same time it was critical for him to have clear consumer disclosures and protections going forward."
After more than 30 years in the House, and having served as the top Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee since 2003, Frank announced Monday he would not run for reelection next year.
Frank, 71, who was first elected to Congress in 1980, said congressional redistricting in the state, coupled with his considering retirement for some time, influenced his decision.
"I think I would have won, but it would have been a tough campaign," Frank said of the 2012 election.
Observers said his departure will mean the loss of a giant in the government's establishment of financial services policy.
"I've been involved in lobbying for banks for 38 years, and been through chairmen all the way back to [William] Proxmire and Wright Patman, but I can't think of a single person who was as dominant a force in banking legislation as Barney Frank," said Edward Yingling, a partner at Covington & Burling LLP and the former president of the American Bankers Association. "A lot of that is due to his intelligence, but a lot of that is also due to his energy."
Frank has been front-and-center during most of the key financial services debates of the last few decades. He not only lent his name to perhaps the biggest single piece of financial reform legislation ever — last year's Dodd-frank Act -- but he was also there for Congress' response to the savings and loan crisis of the eighties and nineties, the regulatory modernization effort at the end of the millennium known as Gramm-Leach Bliley and the landmark accounting reform law Sarbanes-Oxley.
"There just aren't that many members who have been around for all of that," said Kenneth Bentsen, a former Texas congressman and now the executive vice president for public policy and advocacy at the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association.
In addition to his 2010 landmark bill, Frank has been heavily involved in the unresolved efforts to reform Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and has staunchly advocated for affordable housing options on behalf of the underprivileged.
But observers said Frank's long record, his sharpness on issues and his toughness with his adversaries were exceeded by his ability to comprehend the consequences of legislation and ultimately deal with the other side to get bills passed.
"He was an excellent legislator and understood the system, respected the system and wanted some accomplishments, [but] at the end of the day didn't even care who got the credit," said Michael Oxley, the former Ohio Republican who chaired the committee before the Democrats retook the House in 2006.
Former Rep. John LaFalce, D-N.Y., who preceded Frank as the committee's most senior Democrat agreed, saying his successor "was both pro-competitive and pro-consumer at the same time."
Yingling said aptitude to convert legislative proposals into winning votes is not universal on Capitol Hill.
"There are a lot of people on the Hill who surprisingly aren't good at that," Yingling said. "The ability to put together a complex package and get it passed and enacted is something that he's very good at."
It was an ability Frank himself noted at a press conference Monday where he reflected on his abilities as a lawmaker.
"I'll indulge in a little immodesty now. I think I was pretty good at being a legislator," Frank said. "I think I have been pretty good at working inside that framework of government. "
Nowhere was that more apparent than in the sweeping bill he co-authored with former Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd. The unprecedented federal bailout of the banking system in late 2008 immediately gave way to a painstaking effort to reform the regulatory system in the hopes that the financial crisis were never repeated.
Whether Dodd-Frank is successful is yet to be seen, and the industry is skeptical that the price of the law will be worth any reward. But supporters say Frank's involvement was instrumental in getting the law's key reforms through, including the creation of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
The "establishment of the" bureau "against a phalanx of opponents and its rollback of previous anti-consumer state law preemption standards are among the many important achievements in that law that can be directly attributed to Barney's leadership," said Ed Mierzwinski, the consumer program director for U.S. PIRG.
At his press conference announcing his retirement, Frank said he still plans to fight to ensure the law is properly implemented and enforced.
"I'm not retiring from advocacy of public policy," he said.
Yet Frank's success has not come without some frayed egos among his adversaries. Frank does not suffer fools lightly and his quick wit arguably has no equals in Congress. His zingers often come at the expense of those he believes are in the wrong.
"Sometimes he focused his wit against an individual, and it could leave sores," said LaFalce. "He was a great person to have as an ally, and he was a formidable foe to have on the other side."
Frank acknowledged as much during the press conference, saying it was one of many reasons he would not become a lobbyist after leaving Congress.
"Let me be very clear: I will neither be a lobbyist nor a historian," he said. "One of the advantages to me of not running for office is I don't even have to pretend to try to be nice to people I don't like. Some of you may not think I've been good at it, but I've been trying. The notion of being a lobbyist, and having to go and try to be nice to people I don't like would be ridiculous."
For all his reputation of being unabashed in his views, however, he has forged a better working relationship with Republicans than seems obvious from the outside.
"Our relationship was based on mutual respect," Oxley said. "Barney has a lot more friends on the Republican side than he would probably like to admit, or they would like to admit. He never went behind my back, never tried to cheap-shot me."
Many observers said Frank's ascension to the chairmanship of the committee to a degree led to his moderating his tone.
"When he became chair — a chairman of a committee — he realized that he had to temper his bombastic ways in order to be effective," said John Taylor, the president of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition. "In the end, he was a dealmaker, and his biggest deal was Dodd-Frank."