WASHINGTON, D.C. (McClatchy) — Michael G. Oxley, 71, who brought competitive intensity and joviality to legislating during a quarter-century as a House Republican from Ohio’s 4th District, died Thursday night. He had had lung cancer since soon after leaving the House in 2006 to become a lobbyist.
Although his career was distinguished by free-market conservatism, Oxley’s name is forever tied to a law that is the bane of the accounting and business world, which he helped steer to passage in 2002 after a series of corporate scandals. He was chairman of the House Financial Services Committee and his legislative partner was the chairman of the companion Senate panel, Maryland Democrat Paul S. Sarbanes. Their work, known as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, created new federal rules for accounting and new penalties for corporate malfeasance.
After the collapse of the energy giant Enron, at the time the biggest bankruptcy in U.S. history, Oxley won passage of a legislative response panned by critics as too vague to be effective. It was quickly subsumed by a more assertive Senate measure after two more accounting scandals, involving Xerox and the telecommunications giant WorldCom, quickened political momentum for government action.
Oxley fought unsuccessfully to limit the scope of the final bill. After leaving office he adopted a damned-with-faint praise approach to his signature accomplishment. “No law is perfect,” he told Fortune magazine in 2012.
Wall Street quickly forgave him, and Oxley became one of the banking industry’s most frequently honored lawmakers. While routinely spending more than $1 million to hold his own rural district, he had plenty left over and was a generous contributor to fellow House Republicans.
During six years as Financial Services chairman, the maximum permitted by Republican rules, Oxley was central to writing laws creating the terrorism risk insurance program, combatting money laundering to reduce terrorists’ access to cash and reducing federal fees on securities sales.
Before taking over Financial Services, he was chairman of a powerful Energy and Commerce subcommittee, where he played a significant role in writing the 1999 law removing the barriers that had separated banks, insurance companies and securities firms since the New Deal. He also helped shepherd one of the two laws enacted over President Bill Clinton’s veto, insulating companies from securities fraud lawsuits when they distribute erroneous but good-faith profit projections.
Before switching committees, Oxley won a bruising power struggle inside the GOP conference that ended with his taking much of his old jurisdiction with him. His strong competitive streak, and a drive to do things his way, also routinely left Democrats complaining of being ignored in crafting legislation.
At the same time, Oxley had a reputation as a wisecracker and backslapper with a quick laugh and wide grin. He was also an unabashed defender of the “old school” perquisites that came with a seat in Congress, especially travel at the expense of others. He roamed as widely as any member to vacation destinations, raising money on the ski slopes in Colorado and speaking at conferences at golf resorts from Florida to southern California.
Michael Garver Oxley was born Feb. 11, 1944, in Findlay, which remained his official hometown throughout his public career. His dad, the county prosecutor, ingrained the virtues of Barry Goldwater and free-market economist Milton Friedman in his son from an early age. After earning degrees from Miami University and Ohio State law school, Oxley spent three years in the FBI. He received a commendation for his role in the arrest of two Black Panthers accused of bank robbery.
While he was an agent, he met and married Patricia Pluguez, then a flight attendant. She survives him, as does their son, Chadd, a lobbyist.
In 1972, at age 28, he won a seat in the Ohio House. His opening to run for Congress came in April 1981, when Republican Rep. Tennyson Guyer died. Oxley ended up winning the seat by 341 votes. He announced his retirement soon after winning his 12th term, the only other time he ever finished with less than three-fifths of the vote.