The Wall Street Journal

  • August 18, 2012

If Only They Had Listened

Ryan was a voice for Fannie Mae reform while Obama opposed it.

On July 27, 2000, a first-term Congressman from Wisconsin signed his name to the Housing Finance Regulatory Improvement Act. The 30-year-old legislator didn’t have much company. Of 435 Members of the House, only 12 were willing to join Paul Ryan in sponsoring a bill to reduce the taxpayer risks at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Eight years later to the day, a federal bailout of the two mortgage giants was on its way to the desk of President George W. Bush. Almost $190 billion in taxpayer financing later, the toxic twins of the housing crisis maintain their massive role in mortgage finance.

On Friday, the U.S. Treasury said it is relieving the two government-sponsored enterprises of the requirement to pay regular dividends to taxpayers. Instead, the toxic twins will simply pass to the feds any profits they make. Fan and Fred’s investment portfolios will also have to shrink more quickly, which is very good. But the deal suggests that they will continue to slap taxpayer-backed guarantees on mortgage bonds forever, or until there’s a reformer in the White House.

If only there had been a few more reformers on Capitol Hill in 2000. Fan and Fred and their army of “affordable housing” lobbyists saw to it that the plan backed by Mr. Ryan never made the House floor. The bill would have limited the assets the toxic twins could hold, increased their capital, added new federal oversight, and removed their credit lines at Treasury.

“In order to maintain double-digit growth,” noted Mr. Ryan at a 2000 Congressional hearing, “Fannie Mae will have to take on more and more risk” in order to “increase profitability to shareholders.” He added, “This is not a mission of public policy.”

As the government-fueled housing party heated up, Mr. Ryan continued to warn that many of Fan and Fred’s profit-making activities carried little benefit for homeowners. In 2002, he sponsored a bill to remove the exemptions Fan and Fred enjoyed from the disclosure requirements in federal securities laws.

Mr. Ryan continued his sometimes lonely effort to reform the mortgage giants, for which he endured their usual political wrath. In 2008 he told us that Fannie once called every mortgage holder in his district, claiming falsely that Mr. Ryan wanted to raise the cost of their mortgage and asking if Fannie could tell the Congressman to stop on their behalf. He received some 6,000 telegrams. (See “The Fannie Mae Gang,” July 23, 2008.)

Mr. Ryan’s embrace of reform in his first term in Congress compares favorably to the efforts of a freshman Senator from Illinois in 2005. President Obama likes to pretend he was a warning voice in the wilderness because he later issued vague statements of displeasure once the housing market was already cracking.

What Mr. Obama doesn’t say is that he failed to support any of the serious reform efforts to reduce the role of Fannie and Freddie in the mortgage market. The same is true of old Senate hand Joe Biden. Mitt Romney was never a Washington politician, so he can’t be blamed for the legislative failures of the 2000s.

This history bears further study, as Mr. Obama repeatedly attempts to tie the GOP candidates to Washington’s policy mistakes leading up to the financial crisis. In Iowa this week, the President said that Messrs. Romney and Ryan are proposing the same economic policies “that got us into this mess in the first place.”

The truth is that the President who loves to talk about the “mess” he “inherited” did nothing to prevent it when he had the chance. In contrast, his opponent’s new running mate was an early voice for reforms that might have helped America avoid it.




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