Barney Frank's Fannie and Freddie Muddle

The Financial Services chairman has a rather curious recollection of recent events.

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Now that crisis management has taken root and Fannie and Freddie have been placed in conservatorship, a number of commentators have remarked that Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson's actions bear a striking resemblance to what his predecessor proposed five years ago. Whether the two mortgage giants deserve a future will be a pitched battle, but for now, Democratic Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, the Financial Services Committee chairman, has issued a press release with a fanciful take on history.

From Frank's press release:

The truth is when President Bush took office, and the Republicans controlled both houses of Congress, he did not make any progress on comprehensive legislation to reform the regulation of the Government Sponsored Enterprises. It was not until 2005, when the House, on a bipartisan basis, and over the President's objections finally passed a reform bill. It died in the Senate in part because the White House's failure to make it a priority.

In fact, here's a New York Times story from September 2003, clearly showing that the first substantive Fannie and Freddie reform from inside government came from the Bush administration. Spurred by worries that Fannie and Freddie were cooking their books and taking too many risks, Treasury Secretary John Snow proposed placing the companies under Treasury oversight with strict controls over risk and capital reserves. The NYT labeled the proposal "the most significant regulatory overhaul in the housing finance industry since the savings and loan crisis a decade ago" and noted:

Mr. Snow said that Congress should eliminate the power of the president to appoint directors to the companies, a sign that the administration is less concerned about the perks of patronage than it is about the potential political problems associated with any new difficulties arising at the companies.

So five years ago, there was one of those rare moments in Washington when the branches and personalities of government—in this case, the Bush administration—are less interested in protecting or expanding their turf than in fixing a looming catastrophe. What was Frank's response to the proposal?

"These two entities—Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac—are not facing any kind of financial crisis," said Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on the Financial Services Committee. "The more people exaggerate these problems, the more pressure there is on these companies, the less we will see in terms of affordable housing."

As Frank mentions in his press release today, two years after it was first proposed, the House finally voted on a bill reforming the mortgage giants. Alas, the legislation was watered down to the point of being meaningless—that's why it passed the House with such wide margins (122 Democrats and 209 Republicans). But even then, and despite his high regard for bipartisanship now, Barney Frank wasn't among the yeas.