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For Watt, a rough road to confirmation

If Mel Watt were being evaluated on common sense criteria, his nomination to be director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency would get a quick nod from the U.S. Senate. But this is Washington, and Watt faces a battle for confirmation that has little to do with how well he’s equipped for the job.

Watt, a U.S. representative from Charlotte, is the second local leader to get a nominating tap on the shoulder this week. Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx, tabbed Monday for U.S. Transportation Secretary, faces a smoother path to confirmation despite having comparatively less expertise for his job.

Watt is a 20-year veteran of Congress and a longtime member of the House Financial Services Committee. He helped pass the Dodd-Frank Act, which was designed to strengthen consumer protections before being subsequently weakened by Congress. Such experience would dovetail nicely with the FHFA, the five-year-old agency that regulates Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which together own or guarantee about half of all U.S. mortgages.

Watt also has the respect of his peers, including Republican Rep. Robert Pittenger, who called him a “good man and dedicated public servant” on Monday. Charlottean Erskine Bowles, a former classmate of Watt’s at the University of North Carolina, noted that Watt would bring “an understanding of how Washington works to the job.”

So why is his nomination shaky? Republicans don’t want a new FHFA director, and they especially don’t want one who would implement Obama administration policies and philosophies. Current director Ed DeMarco, who has led the agency on an acting basis since 2009, is considered friendly toward Republican policies. He has resisted Obama administration recommendations that Fannie and Freddie write down principals on mortgages of borrowers who owe more than their houses are worth.

That’s partly why Republicans blocked Obama’s choice of N.C. banking regulator Joseph Smith in 2010, and it’s why Watt’s nomination Wednesday was met with a collective GOP grimace. “I could not be more disappointed in this nomination,” said Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee.

Watt also may face some resistance from Democrats who don’t like that he’s received hundreds of thousands in contributions from commercial banks – or that he pulled amendments that would’ve strengthened financial oversight shortly after holding a 2010 fundraiser. All of which means that if Republicans try to delay Watt’s nomination, Democrats might not offer the full-throated political support necessary to sway GOP votes and move the nomination forward.

That would be unfortunate for Watt – and wrong for the Senate. Yes, the FHFA is an independent agency, but its director is nominated by the president, whom the voters gave the prerogative of choosing such agency leaders. Unless a nominee has extraordinary policy or ethical warts, the Senate should let a president put his people in place.

Watt doesn’t have those warts. Still, he faces the bumpy path that nominees often face, the kind where you learn how much you undercounted your enemies and overcounted your friends. Watt, a fine public servant, deserves better. He deserves confirmation for a job he’s clearly qualified to do.

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