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Confirm Mel Watt for housing agency

With the wise elimination last month of a much-abused filibuster rule, the Senate could vote on U.S. Rep. Mel Watt’s nomination to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency as early as Tuesday. Senators should confirm his nomination without further delay.

The Charlotte Democrat was treated shabbily when Senate Republicans blocked his nomination in October, claiming he was unqualified. Hogwash. As Senate Banking Committee Chairman Tim Johnson, D-S.D., so aptly noted, that vote was “pure obstructionist politics.”

Watt became the first sitting member of Congress since 1843 to be denied a major executive branch post when GOP senators required 60 votes to allow his nomination to go forward. Fed up with such obstructionism, Senate Democrats eliminated that use of the filibuster. This time, only a simple majority will be needed.

The charges Senate Republicans made that Watt was unqualified for the job lack merit. Watt was a real estate and business lawyer before his election to Congress. And for nearly two decades in the U.S. House, he has worked on housing policy as a member of the House Financial Services Committee. Even some banking and finance groups who disagree with Watt’s ideology – and that of President Barack Obama who nominated Watt – acknowledge he has the background and experience for the job and say he would be a fair and balanced leader for the agency.

He also has the support of both of North Carolina’s U.S. senators, Republican Richard Burr and Democrat Kay Hagan, as well as an array of financial leaders including National Association of Realtors President Gary Thomas and National Association of Home Builders Chairman Rick Judson. Also backing Watt is the Mortgage Bankers Association and the AFL-CIO.

Watt said last week that he was insulted when those opposing him questioned his qualifications. “It’s hard to be insulted if you know it’s just politics, but when people start to say, ‘I’m doing this because he’s unqualified,’ then it is insulting and then you start to take it personally,” Bloomberg News reported.

It was an insult, an unwarranted one.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is no doubt right when he pins Watt’s opposition to opponents’ dislike of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the controversial agencies the FHFA oversees. The government is shrinking the roles of Fannie and Freddie in mortgage lending and trying to draw back more private capital. Opponents worry Watt isn’t committed to that.

But as the Wall Street Journal noted in a story last week, the Obama administration believes in shrinking the roles of Freddie and Fannie to limit government exposure to mortgage defaults. Under Watt, it may seek to overhaul the broader market in different ways, but the administration isn’t likely to backtrack on winding down the two agencies. The Journal also noted that Watt is likely to bring key stakeholders together to fashion a more coherent strategic plan for operating Freddie and Fannie, and FHFA, than now exists. It is also believed that Watt will encourage more help for borrowers, something industry economists say is needed.

All that bodes well for a stronger, more focused FHFA. Watt can provide the leadership this agency needs. He deserves confirmation.

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