But that is particularly true for Rep. Maxine Waters, who has inherited his mantle as leader of the Democrats on the House Financial Services Committee, a role Frank played for a decade.
In her first extensive interview since assuming that position, Waters contends she's up to the challenge, saying she learned a lot from watching the Massachusetts Democrat work and plans to follow in his footsteps — including defending the financial reform bill that bears his name.
"Barney Frank has led us to understand that which we have to fight for," said Waters. "The basic idea of Dodd-Frank and what it will do for the financial services industry and the consumers of this country is what we really have to stand up for."
Looking back on the experiences of her predecessor, Waters called Frank "the premier leader in the financial services community." She pointed to his dedication to his job, and also the respect he commanded from colleagues.
"I once had a conversation with him about how much time does he spend on this job, as chairman or even as a ranking member, and he said that all of his time is taken up on learning, leading and dealing with the issues of financial services," she said. "You have to put in a lot of time. You're going to have to read, you're going to have to listen. It becomes a real part of your life. It's not like many issues of Congress where you can get in and out."
She also noted that most Democrats took their cues from Frank on how to vote on certain issues, a position that she acknowledged would be tough to reach.
"Because so many members of Congress do not know these issues, they look to you for guidance," Waters said. "And Barney had arrived at a point in time where his word was golden. So when the caucus had to vote on issues that they know nothing about and that were complicated issues of finance, it was whatever Barney said. And I think achieving that status is not easy, you have to work at it, you have to build that kind of confidence based on your knowledge, and I kind of learned that from him."
The California Democrat earned her top spot on the panel the old-fashioned way, rising up the ranks over her 22 years on the committee. Waters, the fifth of 13 children and raised by a single mother in St. Louis, came to the House after serving in the California State Assembly for 14 years. She joined the committee at a pivotal time for the financial services industry, in the wake of the savings and loan crisis.
Members were "fleeing the committee," she said. "Some of them had been involved in actions that had been considered inappropriate. Some of them did not want to have to go through perhaps reform, because of what we had learned about the S&L debacle."
Waters acknowledges that she joined the committee with "not a lot of knowledge," except what she had picked up in the state legislature, where she led efforts to divest state pension funds from companies doing business in South Africa.
But over the course of her career on the panel, the California Democrat has had to assume a number of leadership roles, including as the chair of the housing and community opportunity subcommittee and as the lead Democrat of the capital markets subcommittee.
Questions loomed last year about whether Waters would be chosen to take over for Frank when he retired, thanks to a multiyear ethics investigation over whether she helped steer Troubled Asset Relief Program funds to a bank with which her husband had financial ties. She was cleared of any wrongdoing in September, paving the way for her to assume the ranking member slot on the panel.
But Waters may face an even tougher challenge than Frank in his final two years. Frank faced off against then Chairman Spencer Bachus, a Republican moderate pushed by House leadership to act in a more conservative manner.
New chairman Jeb Hensarling, however, is a true believer, a Texas ulta-conservative who has in the past shown disdain for Democratic positions.
One of the biggest questions for the panel is whether Waters, who has also been known to sound off on her Republican colleagues, can work effectively with Hensarling.