Democrats Seek Edge on Mortgage Issue

Posted November 14, 2007 at 6:44pm

House Democrats hope the subprime mortgage crisis will help them capture GOP seats next year as they paint Republicans as asleep at the switch while they were in charge and standing in the way of efforts to increase regulation of the deeply troubled mortgage industry.

Democrats will bring a major mortgage overhaul bill to the House floor today that has significant bipartisan support but has been vigorously opposed by Republican leaders.

More than a million American families could be evicted from their homes in the next year as they face soaring monthly payments — with battleground states like Ohio and Florida among those with the biggest problems — and banks large and small have been rocked by tens of billions of dollars in losses on murky real-estate-backed investment vehicles. Top Democratic political strategists say the housing issue fits snugly into their plan to attack Republicans for a range of economic troubles that are squeezing the middle class.

“You are already hearing candidates talk about it,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, referring to the housing crunch. Van Hollen said that in districts like Rep. Steve Chabot’s (R-Ohio), Democrats are pointing to a run of foreclosures and blaming Republicans for failing to crack down on unscrupulous lending practices.

“They had an opportunity to show Americans what their priorities were,” Van Hollen said. “They’ve spent the last six years trying to do favors for the super-rich in this country and ignoring the rest of America.”

Van Hollen said “total mismanagement of the economy” will go alongside Iraq and the response to Hurricane Katrina as examples of Republican ineptitude. He also said Democrats would be able to avoid blame for economic woes in the meantime. “You can’t turn around the ship on a dime,” he said.

Van Hollen said Republicans who have downplayed the housing troubles and have repeatedly talked up the strengths of the economy — which they repeatedly attribute to tax cuts — will face a credibility gap next year.

“What I think it will show is that a lot of these guys have been living in fantasy land,” Van Hollen said. “They’re not in touch with middle America with all of their happy talk over the past few years.”

Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said that while the economy is not technically in a recession, many Americans feel pressured by the housing credit crisis, health care costs and other issues, and Democrats are responding.

“It was under George Bush’s watch,” Emanuel said of the credit crunch.

“The economy is going to be the dominant domestic issue next year — housing, health care, jobs, energy components,” Emanuel added, “and I’m not limiting myself to that.”

Republicans, meanwhile, are deeply divided over how to react on housing, with some calling for more regulation and others calling for a take-it-slow response, wary of making the situation worse.

Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) successfully wooed ranking member Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.) and other Republicans to join his mortgage regulation overhaul expected to pass on the floor today, to the chagrin of House GOP leaders.

“It’s been well received by a lot of Members on this side,” Bachus said, adding that he’s also aware that many Republicans have concerns.

He said Members are worried about the legislation being morphed into something else during conference. Others see the move as a knee-jerk reaction to a situation that might be best left to correct itself or could be made worse by impetuous government intervention.

“There’s legitimate concerns about legislating in a crisis,” he said.

Bachus said he preferred the original bill put forth by Republicans, and that the compromise with Frank was a needed step toward helping people in crisis.

“This bill is not perfect. I could see myself voting yes. I could see myself voting no,” based on what amendments are offered on the floor, Bachus said. He said he didn’t expect the bill to be altered enough to cause him to vote no.

Bachus attempted to explain his position before House Republicans at a conference meeting Wednesday morning, but Member after Member got up to denounce the new regulatory regime as excessive, according to Republican sources. And in an unusual move, most of the Republicans on the committee voted against Bachus’ position on the bill.

Republican leaders dismissed the bill as doing more harm than good.

“So what, we’re supposed to have a bunch of mortgage nannies now?” asked Brian Kennedy, spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio).

“Casting blame is about the only thing Democrats have done proficiently in the last 10 months. … Republicans helped expand homeownership for millions of Americans, and we support common-sense proposals to protect homeowners, but when Democrats start using the term ‘regulate’ they really mean tax and smother.”

Rep. Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.) said that he will probably vote against the bill, although he acknowledged that some Members with major housing problems in their districts could face trouble. Reynolds said additional regulations may be warranted, but regulators already may have the tools needed to implement them.

“Some of my Democratic colleagues have wanted to rush in with a solution before they really understand the problem,” Reynolds said. He defended the Republican record on housing.

“We have put more people into housing than ever before, and there are more minorities in housing,” Reynolds said.

Rep. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Republican Conference, said Democrats are overreaching.

“The national subprime crisis is essentially a Florida, California and Las Vegas crisis,” Putnam said. “And while there clearly are things that can be done to give short-term relief to borrowers, they are using this as an opportunity to overreact and use a sledgehammer on a gnat.”

Putnam ripped the bill as “a windfall” for trial attorneys by allowing people to sue brokers and others for giving them loans they could not afford.

But Frank has pointed to the mortgage meltdown as a failure of “extreme deregulation — leaving the market to itself.”

Frank said regulated mortgage lenders performed far better than the unregulated parts of the industry, leading to a crisis of confidence on Wall Street. Frank argues that “market-sensitive” regulations would help restore confidence. “It’s not only better for the economy, it’s better for the market,” Frank said.

Frank blamed former House Majority Leaders Tom DeLay and Dick Armey for having a “government is dumb” approach to regulation for letting the subprime issue spiral into a crisis without sufficient oversight.

Frank said it is always hard to pass consumer protection bills, but this time may be different.

“Consumer organizations are not very effective in lobbying Members, but the magnitude of this issue has made this more potent on the consumer side,” Frank said.

Other Democrats attacked Putnam for his comments minimizing the problem.

“There are foreclosures taking place all over the country today, and Democrats will not stand by while Republicans try to decide whether it’s a problem,” said Nadeam Elshami, spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Lauren W. Whittington contributed to this report.