Fannie, Freddie Tackle the Hill

Posted July 14, 2008 at 6:40pm

As Congress and the administration move this week to help shore up Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two ailing mortgage giants will rely on lobby teams that have undergone sweeping changes in recent years.

Though still generous spenders on K Street, both firms have scaled back their influence portfolios since accounting irregularities and fundraising scandals first rocked the companies starting in 2000.

“What used to be a superstar-filled auditorium of people on retainer now can fit into a small conference room. The Fannie of today is different from the Fannie of four years ago,” noted one consultant.

Many lobbyists and Congressional aides familiar with the companies say Fannie Mae, in particular, has put together a leaner but more effective Congressional team that ranks among the best in the business.

“I think they are doing more with less,” said Bob Maloney, who spent 18 years in-house at Fannie and now runs Maloney Government Relations, which until January represented the mortgage company.

But opponents are not convinced. “So I still think that they are active, lobbying on their issues, but they’re obviously not in a position to dictate outcome,” said one financial services industry lobbyist whose clients have sometimes been at odds with Fannie and Freddie.

The outcome, of course, could have serious implications for the overall economy.

And amidst growing strains on Freddie and Fannie, the Federal Reserve took steps over the weekend to assure jittery investors.

Congress will need to approve some of those measures, which include increasing their credit lines and allowing the Federal Reserve to lend them money at the rate it charges banks.

Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) signaled Monday that his committee would address the issue at a previously scheduled hearing today.

“The good news is Freddie and Fannie are very sound and strong,” Dodd said on a conference call.

Dodd noted that he would like the Fannie- and Freddie-related provisions to be included in a House version of the housing bill that could be sent to the president’s desk by the end of the week.

Yet, several lobbyists suggested that some Senators more skeptical of the Federal Reserve’s increasing oversight role on Fannie and Freddie may want to move those provisions separate from the housing bill.

With Treasury sending over its language midafternoon Monday, Freddie and Fannie were unable to discuss the specifics of the bill, yet both institutions have publicly said they are in favor of the proposed changes.

When it comes to lobbying for the government-sponsored enterprise reform measure, one Democratic aide said Fannie has been “the exclusive lobbyist presence” and Freddie has not been visible on the matter.

And one financial services lobbyist familiar with Freddie’s and Fannie’s operations said Freddie in particular has lost credibility on Capitol Hill by claiming that it didn’t need the additional government intervention that would come from reforming how the government regulates GSEs.

“Literally, as of a week ago, Freddie was going up there and saying, ‘Everything’s OK. Leave us alone,’” said this lobbyist, who would not be quoted by name. “They’ve been losing credibility for a long time, but especially in recent months.”

Yet Freddie Mac lobbyists say they have been active participants in the long-standing debate.

The housing bill “has been going on for several years and it has gone through several iterations,” Freddie Mac spokesman Doug Duvall said. “Freddie Mac has tried to play a constructive role with both chambers and parties.”

Although the housing lenders both signaled support for the proposed changes, some GSE lobbyists said it was unfair that Freddie and Fannie were facing increased regulation while investment banks like Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers were likely to not incur more regulation by the Federal Reserve or Treasury.

“There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of crackdown on the mortgage brokers in this bill,” said one lobbyist, who works for one of the GSEs. “It feels like Fannie and Freddie are paying for the sins of others.”

A Leaner Kind of GSE

One thing is clear: Both companies have reduced their spending on lobbying.

When former Fannie Mae CEO Franklin Raines left in December 2004, it touched off a revamping of the company, including its government relations division.

Fannie’s in-house lobbying effort is led by Duane Duncan, who oversees a team of half a dozen lobbyists.

In 2004, Fannie Mae reported spending $8.8 million on federal lobbying, with some of that work going to 23 lobbying firms. The company’s recent lobbying spending peaked in 2006 when it reported $10.2 million.

But starting in 2007, Fannie had downsized its outside firms to about a dozen and had scaled down its spending to $5.6 million. This year, based on first-quarter reports, Fannie is on track to spend about the same amount in 2008.

“I think there was, and I’m speculating a little here, there might have generally been a feeling that they had too many people and were spending too much money,” said Jeff Peck, a partner with Johnson, Madigan, Peck, Boland & Stewart who has managed his firm’s relationship with Fannie since 2003. “They could make the people they decided to keep work a little harder.”

Freddie Mac’s leadership team, including its government relations operation, has been completely revamped since it first ran into accounting problems in 2000 and then again in 2004. The lending giant paid a record $3.8 million fine in a settlement with the Federal Election Commission in 2006 after an investigation into fundraising activities organized by its former top lobbyist, Mitchell Delk, and other lobbyists.

At the same time, the firm also restated three lobbying disclosure reports from 2004 and 2005, upping the number of in-house lobbyists working for it by a handful.

The office is now run by Timothy McBride, a former member of the George H.W. Bush Cabinet and former top lobbyist at Daimler Chrysler. His wife, Anita McBride, is chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush.

Since the company’s peak in lobbying spending in 2004, where it reported spending $15.4 million, Freddie has cut back its spending. Last year the company spent $8.5 million in lobbying.

In the first quarter of 2008, Freddie spent nearly $2.2 million on lobbying with more than 30 firms, many of which are solo shops, on retainer. The company has also added former Sen. Al D’Amato’s (R-N.Y.) lobby shop Park Strategies and Arnold & Porter, which hired former Freddie lobbyist Dwight Fettig earlier this year.

In addition to lobbying on housing and lending regulations, Freddie has made a concerted effort to rebuild credibility with lawmakers after the accounting scandal.

A senior House Democratic aide connected to the Financial Services Committee said both Fannie and Freddie are respected on Capitol Hill. “No question, they have rehabilitated,” the aide said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They have built up serious, legitimate Capitol Hill-Washington operations.”

Peck, a Democrat, and other lobbyists and Democratic Congressional aides point specifically to Fannie Mae’s top in-house Democratic lobbyist, Cory Alexander, as a driving force behind the company’s strategy. A former top aide to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Alexander joined Fannie in 2006.

In particular, the senior House Democratic aide said Fannie Mae and Alexander have gained impeccable credentials among Members and staffers.

“He is a real strategist and someone who has immersed himself in the issues,” the staffer said. “Cory doesn’t just stand out amongst the GSEs, but amongst lobbyists. He’s probably the most strategic company lobbyist I’ve seen.”