The workhorse legacy of the late Sen. Paul Sarbanes

The famously ‘low-key’ Maryland Democrat died Sunday at 87

Former Sen. Paul Sarbanes, left, and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, both of Maryland, attend a swearing-in ceremony for new Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden in September 2016. Sarbanes died Sunday at the age of 87.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Former Sen. Paul Sarbanes, left, and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, both of Maryland, attend a swearing-in ceremony for new Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden in September 2016. Sarbanes died Sunday at the age of 87. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted December 7, 2020 at 5:54pm

In his 36 years in Congress, the famously “low-key” Maryland Democrat Paul S. Sarbanes nevertheless found himself drafting the first article of impeachment against President Richard Nixon and co-authoring landmark anti-fraud legislation that changed corporate America.

His legacy was on display as news spread about his death Sunday at the age of 87.

“Known as the stealth senator, he was low-key but extremely effective. A leader on a wide-ranging group of issues, from environmental stewardship to consumer privacy to anything having to do with his home state of Maryland. He was soft-spoken, but he had determination like iron and worked and worked and worked on issue after issue until he achieved his goals,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said on the floor Monday.

“In Congress, Paul Sarbanes was respected by his colleagues on both sides of the aisle for his humility, tenacity and keen intellect. It was a source of great pride for me that his Congressional career began in the same House seat held by my father,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement Monday, referring to her father, the late Thomas D’Alesandro Jr.

“In his five terms in the Senate, Sarbanes lived comfortably in a world of precise details and quiet insistence. And while he possessed the intellectual skills to leave opponents sputtering, he generally showed little appetite for legislative gamesmanship, relying instead on a methodical approach to policy making,” read his profile in CQ’s “Politics in America.”

Sarbanes’ chairmanship of the Senate Banking panel thrust him into the spotlight during the early 2000s accounting scandals at Enron, Arthur Anderson and elsewhere. His quiet negotiations with his Republican colleagues, including the Senate’s only accountant, Michael B. Enzi, a conservative Wyoming Republican, and his House counterpart, Republican Michael G. Oxley of Ohio, produced the Sarbanes-Oxley corporate governance law.

It imposed new rules on accounting firms that audit publicly traded companies and mandated new disclosure and conflict-of-interest reporting requirements for companies.

First elected to the House in 1970, Sarbanes won election to the Senate in 1976, and retired after five terms, serving until 2007.

“It was not my ambition to stay there until they carried me out,” he said when he announced in 2005 that he would not run for another term. “It was just the right time.”

Sarbanes and fellow Maryland Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski talk at the bottom of the Capitol steps after Senate office buildings were closed in 2001 to be checked for anthrax. (Scott J. Ferrell/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Sarbanes is the second longest-serving senator in Maryland history, behind Democrat Barbara A. Mikulski.

“His leadership in preserving the Chesapeake Bay, expanding access to affordable housing, and protecting Main Street investors in the bill that bears his name, Sarbanes-Oxley, are enduring testaments to his legacy of positive change,” Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen said in a statement Monday.

Democratic leaders frequently tapped Sarbanes for some of the most partisan jobs, asking him to write the first impeachment article against Nixon, to serve on the select committee investigating the Iran-Contra scandal and to be the ranking member of the Senate Whitewater Committee.

“Paul was known for always doing his homework and for his sharp questioning — woe to the witness who appeared before his committees unprepared,” Van Hollen said.

Sarbanes speaks to California Sen. Barbara Boxer, alongside Sens. Joe Biden and Barack Obama, at a Senate Foreign Relations meeting in 2005 to vote on the U.N. ambassador nomination of John Bolton. (Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The son of Greek immigrant parents, Sarbanes grew up on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, went to Princeton and won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford. After graduating from Harvard Law in 1960 — where he befriended Michael S. Dukakis, the future Massachusetts governor and 1988 Democratic presidential nominee — Sarbanes practiced law briefly before jumping into public life as an administrative assistant in President John F. Kennedy’s Council of Economic Advisers. He practiced law again and won a state House seat in 1966.

Running as an anti-war, anti-machine insurgent, Sarbanes headed for Congress in 1970 by winning a Democratic primary challenge against Rep. George H. Fallon, the chairman of the Public Works Committee, who had represented Baltimore in the House for 13 terms.

Sarbanes later moved to the Senate by unseating one-term Republican J. Glenn Beall Jr. in 1976.

His son, Maryland Rep. John Sarbanes, was elected to the House in 2006. He has been among the point people for the chamber’s Democrats advocating legislation to increase government and campaign transparency.