“Debt, Depression, DeMarco”: How Economic Policy Has Been Crippled By Unyielding, Irresponsible Republican Opposition
There has been plenty to criticize about President Obama’s handling of the economy. Yet the overriding story of the past few years is not Mr. Obama’s mistakes but the scorched-earth opposition of Republicans, who have done everything they can to get in his way — and who now, having blocked the president’s policies, hope to win the White House by claiming that his policies have failed.
And this week’s shocking refusal to implement debt relief by the acting director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency — a Bush-era holdover the president hasn’t been able to replace — illustrates perfectly what’s going on.
Some background: many economists believe that the overhang of excess household debt, a legacy of the bubble years, is the biggest factor holding back economic recovery. Loosely speaking, excess debt has created a situation in which everyone is trying to spend less than their income. Since this is collectively impossible — my spending is your income, and your spending is my income — the result is a persistently depressed economy.
How should policy respond? One answer is government spending to support the economy while the private sector repairs its balance sheets; now is not the time for austerity, and cuts in government purchases have been a major economic drag. Another answer is aggressive monetary policy, which is why the Federal Reserve’s refusal to act in the face of high unemployment and below-target inflation is a scandal.
But fiscal and monetary policy could, and should, be coupled with debt relief. Reducing the burden on Americans in financial trouble would mean more jobs and improved opportunities for everyone.
Unfortunately, the administration’s initial debt relief efforts were ineffectual: Officials imposed so many restrictions to avoid giving relief to “undeserving” debtors that the program went nowhere. More recently, however, the administration has gotten a lot more serious about the issue.
And the obvious place to provide debt relief is on mortgages owned by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored lenders that were effectively nationalized in the waning days of the George W. Bush administration.
The idea of using Fannie and Freddie has bipartisan support. Indeed, Columbia’s Glenn Hubbard, a top Romney adviser, has called on Fannie and Freddie to let homeowners with little or no equity refinance their mortgages, which could sharply cut their interest payments and provide a major boost to the economy. The Obama administration supports this idea and has also proposed a special program of relief for deeply troubled borrowers.
But Edward DeMarco, the acting director of the agency that oversees Fannie and Freddie, refuses to move on refinancing. And, this week, he rejected the administration’s relief plan.
Who is Ed DeMarco? He’s a civil servant who became acting director of the housing finance agency after the Bush-appointed director resigned in 2009. He is still there, in the fourth year of the Obama administration, because Senate Republicans have blocked attempts to install a permanent director. And he evidently just hates the idea of providing debt relief.
Mr. DeMarco’s letter rejecting the relief plan made remarkably weak arguments. He claimed that the plan, while improving his agency’s financial position thanks to subsidies from the Treasury Department, would be a net loss to taxpayers — a conclusion not supported by his own staff’s analysis, which showed a net gain. And it’s worth pointing out that many private lenders have offered the very kinds of principal reductions Mr. DeMarco rejects — even though these lenders, unlike the government, have no incentive to take into account the way debt relief would strengthen the economy.
The main point, however, is that Mr. DeMarco seems to misunderstand his job. He’s supposed to run his agency and secure its finances — not make national economic policy. If the Treasury secretary, acting for the president, seeks to subsidize debt relief in a way that actually strengthens the finance agency, the agency’s chief has no business blocking that policy. Doing so should be a firing offense.
Can Mr. DeMarco be fired right away? I’ve been seeing conflicting analyses on that point, although one thing is clear: President Obama, if re-elected, can, and should, replace him through a recess appointment. In fact, he should have done that years ago. As I said, Mr. Obama has made plenty of mistakes.
But the DeMarco affair nonetheless demonstrates, once again, the extent to which U.S. economic policy has been crippled by unyielding, irresponsible political opposition. If our economy is still deeply depressed, much — and I would say most — of the blame rests not with Mr. Obama but with the very people seeking to use that depressed economy for political advantage.
By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, August 2, 2012
“I’m going to take a lot of departments in Washington, and agencies, and combine them. Some eliminate, but I’m probably not going to lay out just exactly which ones are going to go,” Romney said. “Things like Housing and Urban Development, which my dad was head of, that might not be around later. But I’m not going to actually go through these one by one. What I can tell you is, we’ve got far too many bureaucrats. I will send a lot of what happens in Washington back to the states.”
“I’m going to probably eliminate for high income people the second home mortgage deduction,” he continued, adding that he would also support eliminating deductions for state income and property taxes.
Till now, Romney has been very specific about his intention to be very vague. Back in March, he told the conservative Weekly Standard, “one of the things I found in a short campaign against Ted Kennedy was that when I said, for instance, that I wanted to eliminate the Department of Education, that was used to suggest I don’t care about education…So will there be some that get eliminated or combined? The answer is yes, but I’m not going to give you a list right now.”
Sunday’s comments, however, were “overheard by reporters on a sidewalk below.” Romney thought he was speaking privately to a group of conservative donors. And so they offer, in theory, a look behind the curtain. The only problem is there’s not much there.
Romney’s tax plan — which extends all the Bush tax cuts and then cuts taxes even further — will cost the Treasury trillions of dollars in lost revenue. You can’t make that up by capping a few deductions for high-income taxpayers. And while it sounds very tough to talk about closing agencies, it doesn’t save you much money unless you’re also willing to cut the services they provide.
To make his numbers add up, Romney needs to close the largest and most popular deductions in the tax code and cut huge swaths of government social spending. And as of now, he’s not willing to talk about doing that. Not even in private.
By: Ezra Klein, Wonkblog, The Washington Post, April 16, 2012
Here’s a sad item from Reuters’ Tim Reid:
Banks are foreclosing on America’s churches in record numbers as lenders increasingly lose patience with religious facilities that have defaulted on their mortgages, according to new data.
The surge in church foreclosures represents a new wave of distressed property seizures triggered by the 2008 financial crash, analysts say, with many banks no longer willing to grant struggling religious organizations forbearance.
Since 2010, 270 churches have been sold after defaulting on their loans, with 90 percent of those sales coming after a lender-triggered foreclosure, according to the real estate information company CoStar Group.
In 2011, 138 churches were sold by banks, an annual record, with no sign that these religious foreclosures are abating, according to CoStar. That compares to just 24 sales in 2008 and only a handful in the decade before.
The church foreclosures have hit all denominations across America, black and white, but with small to medium size houses of worship the worst. Most of these institutions have ended up being purchased by other churches.
The highest percentage have occurred in some of the states hardest hit by the home foreclosure crisis: California, Georgia, Florida and Michigan.
Do you perhaps think the closure of churches in the midst of a Great Recession might be as much a threat to the free exercrise of religious expression as, say, a requirement that church-affiliated institutions allow their insurance companies to provide contraception coverage for their employees? I haven’t heard a peep about it from major religious leaders, much less conservative politicians. Bankers wanting their payments are apparently off-limits to criticism, unlike a president trying to ensure something within shouting distance of equality in access to health care.
By: Ed Kilgore, Washington Monthly Political Animal, March 10, 2012
Since the housing bubble began to burst six years ago, prices nationwide have fallen by a third. Nearly $7 trillion of home equity has been wiped out. Currently, some 14.7 million homeowners owe $700 billion more on their mortgages than their homes are worth. Going forward, prices are likely to fall further as banks put a backlog of foreclosed properties on the market. As home prices fall and more homeowners sink underwater, there will be more foreclosures and more price declines.
So what is Mitt Romney’s response? Bring it on.
In interviews and in the Republican presidential debates, Mr. Romney has said that the cure for foreclosures is for the government to get out of the way and let the process run its course. Once prices hit bottom, investors and want-to-be homeowners would presumably swoop in and prices would stabilize.
The argument might have some red-meat appeal, playing off the notion that any owners who lose their homes are getting what they deserve. It is wrong on several counts:
Mass foreclosures are a rotten way to stabilize the market. They impose huge costs on neighbors, communities and local governments, and on the broader economy, as falling prices erode equity, depress consumer spending and mire the housing market in a deep hole.
Who does Mr. Romney think will buy up millions of foreclosed properties? Borrowers who lose their homes to foreclosure or who sell their homes for less than the balance on their mortgages can be denied credit for years; many will never be homeowners again.
Many college graduates, unable to find jobs, are moving in with their parents, not starting careers, not starting families and not becoming first-time home buyers. High school graduates are despairing of any economic toehold. Investors are inclined to buy distressed properties only if they believe home values will rise, a confidence that is hard to come by in a market that is threatened by more foreclosures and renewed price declines.
With the economy still weak and vulnerable to shocks, more foreclosures and the resulting price declines would only weaken the economy further.
The let-it-crash argument conveniently ignores that the housing bubble was the result not only of overborrowing but of reckless lending too. When the bubble burst, the banks were bailed out, while speculators and uncreditworthy borrowers — whom lenders had aggressively pursued during the boom — quickly began to lose their properties. But the economic damage went far beyond the “bad” borrowers, as evidenced by deep recession, ensuing slow growth, high unemployment and crashing home values — all of which has now harmed millions of homeowners who never went near a subprime mortgage. They are the collateral damage of the banks’ binge and bailout. They deserve help, not scorn.
That is not to say that every troubled borrower can be saved. Of the estimated 14.7 million underwater borrowers, 1.6 million are lost causes, according to Moody’s Analytics. Many have already abandoned their homes, leaving them vacant, or are hopelessly behind on their payments, often because of long-term unemployment. This group needs policies to help convert homes to rentals.
Another 1.6 million underwater borrowers have missed payments because of a setback, like job loss, that may prove temporary. They could be helped with forbearance, allowed to make no or reduced payments for a time, and make up the difference later, or with loan modifications that result in meaningfully smaller payments.
The remaining 11.5 million underwater homeowners are current in their payments, but are at high risk of default, since they have no equity to cushion a financial setback and no incentive to keep paying, especially if prices go down again.
Loan modifications that reduce principal balances are the best solution, because they restore equity and reduce monthly payments. The banks would take a hit on principal write-downs. So be it. Refinancings, which the Obama administration is in the process of expanding, also help, because a new loan with a lower rate makes staying in the home more affordable. Mr. Romney has said refinancing is “worth further consideration.” Investors in mortgage-backed securities will take a hit on refinancings. So be it.
At a recent debate, Mr. Romney was asked why he was willing to risk further huge losses in home equity by pushing foreclosures. “What would you do instead?” he replied. “Have the federal government go out and buy all the homes in America?”
No one is suggesting that. What is needed is a set of policies — rentals, forbearance, principal write-downs and refinancings — on a scale that tackles the problem.
By: The New York Times, Editorial, November 26, 2011
If the House ran America, what would America look like?
It would no longer have a far-reaching health-care law. The House voted to repeal that legislation in January.
It would no longer have federal limits on greenhouse gases. The House voted to ax them in April.
These and many other changes are included in an ambitious slate of more than 80 bills that have passed since Republicans took control of the chamber this year.
Most of these measures will die in the Democrat-controlled Senate. Still, they are a revealing kind of vision statement — the first evidence of how a tea-party-influenced GOP would like to reshape the country.
That vision is aimed at dismantling some Democratic priorities. The GOP’s philosophy holds that paring back an expensive and heavy-handed government bureaucracy would help restore the country’s financial footing and give private businesses the freedom to grow and create jobs.
After seven months, it is still only half a vision.
On major issues such as health care, climate change and bad mortgages, the House has affirmed that fixes are needed — if it can ever manage to repeal the old ones.
It hasn’t said exactly what those changes should be.
“The Republican Party is sort of united in terms of what they’re against. But there’s not a great deal of consensus right now in terms of what they’re for,” said Michael D. Tanner, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute and an expert on health-care reform and recent GOP history.
This month, a divided Congress finally staggered into its summer recess. Its business has been split between the terrifyingly urgent — including standoffs that threatened a government shutdown and a national debt default — and the purely theoretical.
The theoretical part has come because neither the House nor the Senate is likely to approve big ideas dreamed up by the other. The Democrat-held Senate has reacted to this by withdrawing into legislative hibernation.
House Republicans have instead been passing bills that tell a story — about the country they want but can’t quite get.
“The new House Republican majority was voted into office to change the way Washington does business and make the government accountable to the American people once again. Our agenda has reflected these goals,” said Laena Fallon, a spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.).
But even within the Republican ranks, there is a desire for more details about the party’s vision for replacing Democratic policies.
Rep. Trey Gowdy (S.C.) said the GOP must put forward its own solutions on issues such as health care, job creation and mortgage assistance. He said he is not convinced that there is a need to take on climate change in the same way.
“Being the party of ‘no’ . . . is an appropriate response” in some cases, Gowdy said. “It’s not appropriate when you’ve been extensively critical of someone else’s ideas” and have none to replace them, he said.
“For substance reasons, and for credibility reasons, we also need to have a comprehensive . . . alternative that goes beyond saying, ‘Your plan is bad,’ ” Gowdy said.
The best-known part of the House’s vision has to do with spending. The chamber passed a budget that calls for a Medicare overhaul that would force new recipients to buy private insurance after 2022. It also passed, with five Democratic backers, a bill that demanded a balanced budget amendment: essentially, a spending limit written into the Constitution.
But the House’s measures have gone far beyond the budget.
It has passed legislation to forbid new energy-efficiency standards for light bulbs and to punish shining a laser pointer at an airplane in flight. It voted to take away federal funding for National Public Radio and for public financing of presidential campaigns.
The House also took a stand against President Obama on the military campaign in Libya, rejecting a motion to approve U.S. involvement. And it voted to rein in Environmental Protection Agency efforts against “mountaintop-removal coal mines” by requiring the EPA to defer to decisions by state regulators.
On three major issues, the House seemed to acknowledge that simply repealing a Democratic idea might not be enough — and that it did not have its own solutions.
On Jan. 19, for instance, 242 Republicans and three Democrats voted to repeal the landmark health-care law.
In place of the legislation, Republicans had said they would craft their own solutions for problems involving high costs and the denial of coverage for preexisting conditions. Their slogan, outlined in last fall’s Pledge to America, was “Repeal and Replace.”
No replacement has occurred.
A bill that would limit liability in malpractice lawsuits has passed in committee. Other ideas are being developed, aides said.
On climate change, the EPA is requiring larger power plants and industrial facilities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to obtain new permits.
But many in Congress worried that the effort would drive up energy prices and kill jobs. So in April, 236 House Republicans and 19 Democrats voted to make the EPA stop in its tracks.
In place of regulations, they approved only a vaguely worded “sense of the Congress” about climate change.
“There is established scientific concern over warming of the climate system,” the bill says. It adds that Congress should attack the problem “by developing policies that do not adversely affect the American economy, energy supplies, and employment.”
But how? When? The measure doesn’t say.
And it doesn’t need to, said Tim Phillips, president of the conservative group Americans for Prosperity. He said his group thinks that simply repealing this legislation — and the health-care law — is enough for now.
“The big-government assault [has been] so damaging to the economy and the government. They’re doing the right thing by just trying to stop and reverse,” Phillips said.
Environmental groups have said that the House’s bill would leave the nation powerless to fight an escalating global problem.
“They clearly aren’t going to pass any legislation themselves that would address that pollution,” said Dan Lashof of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The House also has voted to eliminate three federal programs meant to aid homeowners in danger of foreclosure. Two help modify loans to create lower payments. The third gives no-interest loans to borrowers who are in trouble. All have been criticized for moving too slowly and helping too few.
In March, the House decided to do away with them. The Congressional Budget Office said that doing so could save taxpayers $2.4 billion.
“None of the programs . . . have been successful,” Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), wrote in a statement.
By: David Fahrenthold, The Washington Post, August 17, 2011