Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

May 12, 2014

Reiss on FHFA Leadership of Housing Finance Reform

By David Reiss quoted me in FHFA Set To Take The Lead In Housing Finance Reform (behind a paywall). It reads in part,

With hopes for a legislative fix for the U.S. housing finance market fading after six key Democrats reportedly refused to support a reform bill pending in the Senate Banking Committee, the Federal Housing Finance Agency will become the central player in reshaping the market and set the terms for any future changes.

The Banking Committee’s leaders — Chairman Tim Johnson, D-S.D., and ranking member Mike Crapo, R-Idaho — were unable to scare up the overwhelming support their housing finance reform bill needed in a last-gasp effort at getting a vote from the full Senate. That leaves the bill’s prospects of getting to President Barack Obama prior to the midterm elections at near zero and the FHFA, the conservator for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac since 2008, as the biggest player in reshaping the U.S. housing market.

“It was always my operating assumption that it was going to be exceedingly difficult to get congressional consensus. Most of the action was going to take place by way of the actions at the FHFA,” said former Republican Rep. Rick Lazio, now a partner at Jones Walker LLP.

The lack of legislation also throws a wild card into the equation, since FHFA head Mel Watt has essentially been silent about his intentions for the FHFA since he won Senate confirmation in December.

“Hopefully, Watt will have a positive vision of the future of the two companies,” said Brooklyn Law School professor David Reiss.

More than five years after Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were placed under FHFA conservatorship after receiving a more-than-$187 billion taxpayer bailout in the fall of 2008, Congress has yet to act on creating a new system for home purchases and eliminating the two companies.

And then, beginning last spring, Congress kicked into gear.

First, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., introduced a bill that Johnson and Crapo would use as the basis for their own legislation, leaving a limited role for government in guaranteeing the mortgage market.

Soon after, the House Financial Services Committee passed its own housing finance reform bill looking to eliminate the government’s role in the housing market entirely.

Johnson and Crapo released their bill, which would eliminate Fannie and Freddie within five years and replace it with a mortgage insurance agency modeled on the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., in March. They scheduled a markup and vote on the bill for late April.

But the two senators delayed the vote at the last minute when it became clear that while they had the 12 votes needed to pass the bill out of the 22-member committee, they lacked the 16 to 18 votes needed to force Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to bring it up for a vote.

Johnson and Crapo said they would continue negotiations with six undecided Democrats, but according to media reports, those negotiations foundered on worries about access to affordable housing in the bill.

Undeterred, Johnson vowed to bring the bill up for a vote next week.

“Those involved in the negotiations have indicated they are interested in continuing to work together to try and find common ground, so the Banking Committee will keep working after favorably reporting out the bill next week,” Sean Oblack, a Democratic spokesman for the committee, said in a Thursday statement.

Still, the failure to get overwhelming support for the Johnson-Crapo bill essentially dooms the prospects for housing finance legislation this year, Lazio said.

“The administration will probably wait until early next Congress to make a decision about whether they think reform is possible,” he said.

But reform efforts will not stop, since the FHFA has a large amount of discretion over the futures of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

“The regulator here is very powerful,” Reiss said.

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