WASHINGTON — After the death of former House Financial Services Committee Chairman Michael Oxley on Jan. 1, the media largely focused on his most famous accomplishment: the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002.
Yet while the post-Enron corporate fraud law that bears his name is important, it barely scratches the surface of the Ohio Republican's legacy relative to the banking industry. In his six short years as the banking panel's chairman from 2001 to 2007, Oxley ushered in several key laws that have helped to reshape the financial sphere.
Those included Check 21, which allowed checks to go digital and paved the way for remote deposit, among other products. Oxley also helped to pass other game-changing laws, such as: the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act, the Federal Deposit Insurance Reform Act of 2005, the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act, and the anti-money-laundering provisions of the Patriot Act of 2001.
While these laws do not have the name recognition of Sarbanes-Oxley, they've had a sizable impact on the banking system as we know it today. They were especially big accomplishments considering the complexity of the statutes and the relative speed with which they were enacted.
"Mike Oxley was a real giant," said Steve Bartlett, a former congressman from Texas who served with Oxley in the 1980s and later worked with him as head of the Financial Services Roundtable. "He was so much more than Sarbanes-Oxley."
Ed Yingling, the former president and chief lobbyist for the American Bankers Association, said Oxley, who died at 71 on Friday of non-smoking-related lung cancer, was "one of the best I have ever seen at the process of legislating."
"He was universally liked by members of both parties and knew how to use the process and personal relationships to get things done," Yingling said.
Indeed, perhaps Oxley's greatest legacy isn't the laws he helped enact, but the secret to his success — his ability and willingness to reach across the political aisle to forge a bipartisan compromise. It's a talent that was often overlooked at the time, but unheard of in the modern era — when Congress is bitterly divided and compromise is considered a dirty word.
"Oxley and I worked very closely together for three years," said Barney Frank, who served as lead Democrat on the panel during Oxley's final few years in Congress, and who later took the reins of the committee himself, in an interview. "It was the kind of working relationship, frankly, that people miss. He was a conservative Republican, I am a liberal Democrat. We had some differences on some issues. There were others where we were able to work together. We had a very civil — in fact, better than civil — a friendly relationship."
Oxley's bipartisan credentials can be seen in the vote totals he secured on major bills under his purview. Check 21 passed the House 405 to 0, the FACT Act passed 379 to 49, while deposit insurance reform was approved 413 to 10. Such vote totals would be exceedingly rare for Congress now on any legislation that isn't naming a post office.
The bipartisan approach even extended to one of Oxley's rare losses, the passage of housing finance reform in 2005. In an era when Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were at their most politically powerful, Oxley cut a deal with Frank on a bill that would have created a new regulator for the government-sponsored enterprises. The bill cleared the House 331 to 90 (with 122 Democrats supporting it), but stalled in the Senate after the Bush administration said it did not go far enough.
By the time a similar reform bill was passed in 2007 (under Frank's chairmanship), it was too late to help avoid Fannie and Freddie's collapse a year later. To Oxley, that 2005 loss still smarted, even years later.
"If that bill had been law, it could have at least mitigated the damage that Fannie and Freddie caused," Oxley said in an interview in 2012. "It's amazing. We passed it in the House in 2005. It's like it never happened."
To be sure, Oxley was just one lawmaker among many who worked on the FACT Act, TRIA and other bills. But observers said his influence and ability to leverage the political process were critical to their enactment.
"He was very good at seeing what could pass and what the compromises were," said Yingling. "He was very good at getting things done."
In many ways, he came as a stranger to the banking industry. Republicans created the House Financial Services Committee in 2001 to avoid a power struggle between Oxley and Rep. Billy Tauzin, who were both in line to take over the Commerce Committee. House leadership took the securities jurisdiction from the commerce panel and merged it with the Banking Committee to create an expanded committee.
"I was the new guy on the block," Oxley said in 2012, referring to his new oversight of banking matters.
But he had little time to rest. The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks gave new urgency to anti-money laundering issues, which quickly became part of the Patriot Act. Many creditors, meanwhile, became reluctant to finance large public projects like stadiums for fear of a possible attack, necessitating the need for a government backstop. When Enron imploded at the end of 2001, it set the stage for a bill to tackle corporate fraud.
At least part of Oxley's success in dealing with those issues may be due to his personality. Colleagues describe him as warm and friendly and during committee proceedings, he was affable and charming.
"He was a guy who liked people — he was fun to be with," said Frank. "I would go up to his office, we would get to the point — I can support that or I can't support it — and there was never any acrimony. We knew who had the votes and who didn't. We didn't hide any issues. We didn't drag things out."
Oxley was also chosen as the coach of the Republicans' baseball team and was a regular at the afternoon pickup basketball game in the House gym, according to Bartlett.
"I do not recall Mike Oxley ever once saying an unkind word about anyone, ever, whether someone was an adversary on a piece of legislation or if someone had done him wrong," said Bartlett. "He was a true legislator and a true gentleman."