No Spring Break for Housing Lobbyists

Posted March 21, 2008 at 4:49pm

For lobbyists in the housing and lending industry, as well as for consumer advocates, the spring recess has turned out to be anything but a respite.

The credit crunch and economic woes have sparked a flurry of legislation. With such matters expected to take center stage once Congress reconvenes, these lobbyists are spending the recess meeting with Members in their districts and laying the groundwork with Capitol Hill staffers in Washington, D.C.

“When they come back from the recess they’re going to have a renewed focus on housing in particular and the economy in general,” said Democratic lobbyist Steve Elmendorf of Elmendorf Strategies, whose clients include Fannie Mae, the largest of the government-sponsored enterprises. He added that House Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) are willing to listen to all stakeholders. “The atmosphere is ripe for real stuff to happen that’s bipartisan and has a real impact.”

The Mortgage Bankers Association, which represents companies that make home loans, is bracing for the legislative onslaught.

Francis Creighton, a one-time aide to Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), is vice president of legislative affairs and focuses on House Democrats for the MBA. The group has spent much of the recess evaluating proposals.

Creighton said the MBA is not likely to hire additional lobbyists and is relying mostly on an in-house group including Renee Rappaport, who focuses on Senate Democrats; Pace Bradshaw, who previously worked for Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.) and handles Senate Republicans; and the group’s chief lobbyist, Erick Gustafson, a former aide to then-Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), who focuses on House Republicans and overall strategic direction.

“It is fair to say it’s an all-consuming time,” Creighton said. “When I got here five years ago, the question our members would ask is, ‘Our issues are very important. How do we get them more attention?’ Well, we don’t need to worry about that anymore.”

The mortgage bankers support Congress giving the Federal Housing Administration more flexibility in developing loan products.

But the bankers and virtually the entire lending industry are all against changes to bankruptcy law that would allow judges to modify homeowners’ mortgages — a measure backed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and the No. 1 priority of several consumer groups lobbying intensely for it.

Allen Fishbein, director of housing policy for the Consumer Federation of America, said giving bankruptcy judges that power will keep thousands of people in their homes. Even though the same measure was stopped earlier this year in the Senate, Fishbein said “that was before the Fed started doing things it hadn’t done since the Great Depression. The sand is shifting almost daily on this. All things are on the table.”

On bankruptcy, Fishbein’s group is aligned with other organizations including the Service Employees International Union, U.S. Conference of Mayors, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Center for Responsible Lending.

The Center for Responsible Lending’s Kathleen Day said groups like hers are at a disadvantage compared to industry lobbyists.

“We can’t make political donations like they do,” she said. “So we’re just up there on Capitol Hill arguing on the merits. We’re trying to make people understand. It’s ridiculous that industry has beat this back. … They bail out Bear Stearns, one of the most aggressive in funding these [subprime] loans … why can’t the innocent bystanders get a bailout?”

Scott Talbott, senior vice president of government affairs for the Financial Services Roundtable, said those changes to bankruptcy law ultimately would “undermine the entire system and is an attempt to bail out subprime borrowers in question at the expense of everyone else.”

Although the biggest financial services companies and banks often are at odds with the credit union side, both agree that the bankruptcy proposal is a bad idea.

Brad Thaler, director of legislative affairs for the National Association of Federal Credit Unions, said his group is looking to pro-business Democrats to help moderate the consumer groups’ message.

“In terms of the Blue Dogs, we’ve been talking to them all along on this issue and a number of issues,” Thaler said. “I think they’re pragmatic and bring a pro-business approach that we feel is important. They recognize both consumer concerns as well as credit union and other industry concerns.”

One financial services lobbyist said the sector is not likely to fight hard or hail the Dodd and Frank proposals. Democrats might not want big banking lobbyists cheering their ideas for political reasons. “They’re not sure if Barney Frank and the Democrats want them to support it publicly because it could actually hurt.”