A quiet shepherd of wiser policies

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- As a freshman congressman, he introduced the first article of impeachment against President Richard M. Nixon. As a veteran senator, he responded to corporate scandals by guiding a landmark reform package to passage.

But as he reflects on 36 years in Washington, Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes becomes most animated as he recalls a dredging project in the Chesapeake Bay.

It was the mid-1990s. The port of Baltimore required regular dredging to keep channels clear for commercial shipping. But opposition was growing to the practice of dumping the dredge spoil in deeper waters.

Eventually, the sides hit on the idea of using it to rebuild eroding Poplar Island. The work would keep the bay open to shipping while restoring a habitat then on the verge of extinction. The senior senator from Maryland helped to sharpen the details and shepherded the project through Congress.

You might call it classic Sarbanes: working outside the spotlight, on an unglamorous issue, to guide conflicting interests toward what he calls a "principled compromise" - with lasting effect. In the case of Poplar Island, the solution has become a model that the Army Corps of Engineers uses as it considers similar challenges.

"I'm pretty proud of that, actually," the 73-year-old Democrat said in a recent interview. "It's a good example of how, if you use a little bit of innovation, and if you're willing - which we got [President Bill] Clinton to do - to commit some extra money, you can develop a broad consensus.

"It's an instructive lesson in developing good policy. Which I'm interested in doing." He smiled. "Have been interested in doing for a long time."

Sarbanes says he will pursue that interest into retirement. The longest-serving senator in Maryland history - after five six-year terms, he decided last year not to run again - Sarbanes leaves office when the new Congress takes over this month. Often described as professorial, the former Rhodes scholar is planning to lecture and write on government and policy.

"At this point, I'm sort of caught up with trying to disengage, which is no small task I've discovered," said Sarbanes. "And then we want to catch our breath a bit. ... I'm going to have to adjust to a different pace and a different circumstance."

When he is ready to teach - he has been a trustee at Princeton University, his alma mater, but says he has no firm plans anywhere - he will be able to draw on four decades as a legislator. Low-key by nature (Republican challengers called him Maryland's "stealth senator"), he has built a reputation for a quiet, deliberative approach focused more on achieving results than attracting attention.

"You didn't hear about him like you hear about a lot of these blow-dried politicians that are always in front of the microphone," said Donald F. Norris, director of the Maryland Institute for Policy Analysis and Research at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "That's not the way he operated. He was quiet but effective."

The voters responded. From his political debut, a 1966 run for the House of Delegates, through his last Senate campaign in 2000, Sarbanes never lost an election. In five races for the U.S. Senate, he never received less than 59 percent of the vote.

In office, he compiled a liberal voting record while positioning himself as a leading voice on issues hardly likely to excite the electorate. One example: monetary policy, the relationship among interest rates, inflation and employment, on which he sparred regularly with Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan.

"He was the only guy that used to cross-examine Greenspan," said Michael S. Dukakis, the former Massachusetts governor and a longtime friend. "Which I always thought was just another example of Paul's intelligence and his courage and his character."

Sarbanes also busied himself with housing policy and financial legislation. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, his delegation partner for two decades, sees a unifying theme to his work.

"Whether it was challenging the political bosses in old Baltimore neighborhoods or challenging Wall Street bullies like Enron, he was a reformer," Mikulski said. "Whether it was the Judiciary Committee in the House and standing up against Richard Nixon, to here on the Housing and Banking Committee to fight predatory lending, it's always been fairness and opportunity."

Matthew A. Crenson, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University, called Sarbanes "the workingman's friend."

"Although he may have an aristocratic bearing," Crenson said, "he hasn't forgotten where he came from."

The son of Greek immigrants, Sarbanes grew up in Salisbury on the Eastern Shore, where he worked in the family restaurant and gained local fame as a skilled athlete. He was awarded scholarships to Princeton and Oxford universities, and received a law degree at Harvard.

Back in Baltimore, Sarbanes clerked for a federal judge, as an assistant to the chairman of President John F. Kennedy's Council of Economic Advisers, and then practiced law. He entered the House of Delegates in 1967 and won election to Congress four years later.

There, he maintained a focus on Maryland. Having mentioned Poplar Island, he rattles off a list of projects he helped bring to the state: the Beach-to-Bay Indian Trail on the Eastern Shore, the C&O; Canal terminus in Cumberland and the Capt. John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.

In the 1980s, the Doles - Elizabeth, then transportation secretary, and Bob, then Senate majority leader - were trying to create a regional authority to manage Dulles and National airports. Sarbanes threatened to hold up Senate business unless the needs of Baltimore-Washington International also were addressed.

"It was a pretty tense situation," he said. "I had the majority leader of the United States Senate vitally interested in that bill and his wife lobbying like hell for it. ... I'd go over to the floor with a lot of papers, you know, ready to go to town."

In the end, Elizabeth Dole produced a package to upgrade BWI, and Sarbanes dropped his threat.

At the same time, Sarbanes was developing a national profile on economic issues and foreign affairs. Former Sen. George J. Mitchell, a Maine Democrat, says Sarbanes was a key resource for his colleagues.

"He clearly, in my judgment, was the smartest person in the Senate in terms of pure intellect," Mitchell said. "He was instrumental in virtually every major piece of legislation that was enacted while I was the Senate majority leader."

Sarbanes came with a full agenda of proposals when he became chairman of the Senate Banking Committee in mid-2001. But the attacks of Sept. 11 focused the panel's attention on the issues of money laundering and how terrorism is financed.

At the end of 2001, Enron Corp. declared bankruptcy. Revelations that the Houston-based energy company had defrauded investors with phony accounting led to calls for stricter government controls. Members of both parties held hearings.

Democrats, stressing ties between President Bush and Enron CEO Kenneth L. Lay, and between Republicans and business generally, urged Sarbanes to act quickly for maximal political advantage. But Sarbanes proceeded in his methodical way. He called hearings, 10 days of them in all, drawing on expert testimony and working to build bipartisan consensus on legislation that would balance controls against corporate fraud with concerns about burdensome regulation.

Former Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, then the senior Republican on the committee, said Sarbanes' approach made him easy to work with.

"You couldn't ask for someone to be more fair or more accommodating," Gramm said. "You knew where he was coming from. It's no secret that Paul and I differ pretty substantially on a lot of issues that he thinks are important and I think are important. But I never questioned his sincerity about anything, and I never questioned his intellect or his integrity."

The overhaul package they developed passed the committee 17-4, and won unanimous approval in the Senate. As the Senate and House went to conference in the summer of 2002, months before the midterm elections, Democrats were pushing Sarbanes to draw out the process.

Rep. Michael G. Oxley of Ohio, the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Financial Services, called Sarbanes' response "statesmanlike."

"The Democratic leadership wanted to just beat up President Bush and the Republicans that whole month of August," he said. "But to his credit, he was having none of that. He thought it was important for the country to get this sordid chapter behind us."

The result was the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, a package that required publicly traded companies to report the effectiveness of their internal financial controls and to engage independent auditors to attest to them. Some hailed the legislation, saying it codified the transparency necessary to restore investor confidence in the nation's financial markets. But corporations continue to complain about the cost of meeting its provisions.

Last month, the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board proposed changes that would give auditors more flexibility in assessing corporate finances. Earlier, the Securities and Exchange Commission voted to ease rules for smaller businesses. Sarbanes says he is confident that federal regulators will be able to balance the need for transparency in corporate accounting with concerns about costs.

"You get these complaints, almost as standard fare, about regulation," he said. "I am against needless regulation. I am for needed regulation. ... How you distinguish between needless regulation and needed regulation is the essential question."

Mikulski succeeded Sarbanes in the House, then joined him in the Senate, where they are the only delegation partners who sit side by side. The first female Democrat elected to the Senate in her own right, Mikulski describes Sarbanes as a mentor.

"I have a saying that, although I was all by myself, I was never alone, because I had Paul Sarbanes," she said. "From Day One, he helped me plot out a strategy to get on the Appropriations Committee, because he was on the Budget Committee, and we knew that would be good for Maryland. ... He was right there, showing me what I needed to know and what was the best way to get started in that institution. And I feel that anything that I've been able to do in the Senate was because he helped me do that."

The awards and mementos are coming down from the walls of Sarbanes' office. Longtime aides are looking for work, settling into other jobs - his chief of staff will become his son's chief of staff - going into lobbying or retiring.

Sarbanes had surgery for prostate cancer in 1995 but says his health is good. After three dozen years of commuting to Washington from Baltimore, he spoke of spending more time with Christine, his wife of 46 years, their three children and six grandchildren.

When he announced his retirement, the likelihood of the Democrats regaining control of the Senate appeared remote. Sarbanes says he considered the possibility of returning to the majority and concluded that it would not affect his decision.

"The Senate term is for six years," he said. "So, it's not like you say, 'Well, I'll go on for another year, another two years.' ... There comes a time when you need to move on, and I think this was the right time for me."

Always a fierce partisan, Sarbanes remained active in the 2006 campaign, appearing with Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, the Democrat who will succeed him in the Senate, and with his son, John Sarbanes, who is replacing Cardin in the 3rd District.

Sarbanes is pleased with the election results but warns that the Democratic majority faces a challenge.

"I think the country's expectations may be too high, because George Bush is still the president and he has that veto power," Sarbanes said. "I think the Democrats ought to be able to stop bad things from happening, and that's been a real challenge in recent years.

"They can do some good oversight, which hasn't been done in a long time. But as far as putting together a broad, positive agenda, that's going to be much more difficult."

Sarbanes says he is excited to see his son take his old seat in the House. He says he takes satisfaction in having brought "reasoned intelligence" to his work.

"It's a big thing for people to entrust you with these responsibilities," he said. "I feel I've done it in a way that they feel their trust was warranted."

matthew.brown@baltsun.com

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