Watt will be the first permanent director in nearly four years for the obscure but powerful housing regulator that oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the mortgage giants that were bailed out by taxpayers in 2008 and today control more than half of the mortgage market. Fannie and Freddie wield great power over who gets a loan and at what cost — and, for struggling borrowers, who gets relief.
In nominating Watt, Obama noted that the congressman has served on the House Financial Services Committee during entire his 20 years in office. In that capacity, “Mel has led efforts to rein in unscrupulous mortgage lenders. He’s helped protect consumers from the kind of reckless risk-taking that led to the financial crisis in the first place. And he’s fought to give more Americans in low-income neighborhoods access to affordable housing,” the president said. “So Mel understands as well as anybody what caused the housing crisis.”
The president drew laughs as he later introduced his new FCC chairman, after praising the work of outgoing chairman Julius Genachowski.
“Now, if anybody is wondering about Tom’s qualifications, Tom is the only member of both the cable television and the wireless industry hall of fame. So he’s like the Jim Brown of telecom, or the Bo Jackson of telecom,” Obama said. “And that’s because for more than 30 years, Tom has been at the forefront of some of the very dramatic changes that we’ve seen in the way we communicate and how we live our lives.”
Obama noted Wheeler’s private- and public-sector involvement in the tech industry. “He was one of the leaders of a company that helped create thousands of good, high-tech jobs. He’s in charge of the group that advises the FCC on the latest technology issues. He’s helped give American consumers more choices and better products. So Tom knows this stuff inside and out.”
Wheeler comes to the FCC with deep ties to the nation’s biggest telecom lobbying groups. He has served as head of the wireless industry’s CTIA trade group and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, among the most powerful and deep-pocketed lobbying groups in Washington.
Those connections have raised concerns among critics of the nomination. “I am skeptical that the former chief lobbyist of the wireless and cable industries will be capable of holding his former clients accountable for their ongoing shortcomings,” said Sascha Meinrath, head of the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation think tank.
Wheeler sits on the board of EarthLink, and his investment firm, Core Capital Partners, has invested in wireless equipment and data center technology firms.