Correction to This Article
This op-ed misidentified a House bill to reform Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac that was pulled from consideration before a vote. It was H.R. 2575, in 2003. The bill mentioned in the column, H.R. 1461, passed the House in 2005 but was not voted on in the Senate.

Where Was Sen. Dodd?

By Al Hubbard and Noam Neusner
Friday, September 12, 2008

Taxpayers face a tab of as much as $200 billion for a government takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the formerly semi-autonomous mortgage finance clearinghouses. And Sen. Christopher Dodd, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, has the gall to ask in a Bloomberg Television interview: "I have a lot of questions about where was the administration over the last eight years."

We will save the senator some trouble. Here is what we saw firsthand at the White House from late 2002 through 2007: Starting in 2002, White House and Treasury Department economic policy staffers, with support from then-Chief of Staff Andy Card, began to press for meaningful reforms of Fannie, Freddie and other government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs).

The crux of their concern was this: Investors believed that the GSEs were government-backed, so shouldn't the GSEs also be subject to meaningful government supervision?

This was not the first time a White House had tried to confront this issue. During the Clinton years, Treasury Secretary Larry Summers and Treasury official Gary Gensler both spoke out on the issue of Fannie and Freddie's investment portfolios, which had already begun to resemble hedge funds with risky holdings. Nor were others silent: As chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan regularly warned about the risks posed by Fannie and Freddie's holdings.

President Bush was receptive to reform. He withheld nominees for Fannie and Freddie's boards -- a presidential privilege. While it would have been valuable politically to use such positions to reward supporters, the president put good policy above good politics.

In subsequent years, officials at Treasury and the Council of Economic Advisers (especially Chairmen Greg Mankiw and Harvey Rosen) pressed for the following: Requiring Fannie and Freddie to submit to regulations of the Securities and Exchange Commission; to adopt financial accounting standards; to follow bank standards for capital requirements; to shrink their portfolios of assets from risky levels; and empowering regulators such as the Office of Federal Housing Oversight to monitor the firms.

The administration did not accept half-measures. In 2005, Republican Mike Oxley, then chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, brought up a reform bill (H.R. 1461), and Fannie and Freddie's lobbyists set out to weaken it. The bill was rendered so toothless that Card called Oxley the night before markup and promised to oppose it. Oxley pulled the bill instead.

During this period, Sen. Richard Shelby led a small group of legislators favoring reform, including fellow Republican Sens. John Sununu, Chuck Hagel and Elizabeth Dole. Meanwhile, Dodd -- who along with Democratic Sens. John Kerry, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were the top four recipients of Fannie and Freddie campaign contributions from 1988 to 2008 -- actively opposed such measures and further weakened existing regulation.

The president's budget proposals reflected the nature of the challenge. Note the following passage from the 2005 budget: Fannie, Freddie and other GSEs "are highly leveraged, holding much less capital in relation to their assets than similarly sized financial institutions. . . . A misjudgment or unexpected economic event could quickly deplete this capital, potentially making it difficult for a GSE to meet its debt obligations. Given the very large size of each enterprise, even a small mistake by a GSE could have consequences throughout the economy."

That passage was published in February 2004. Dodd can find it on Page 82 of the budget's Analytical Perspectives.

The administration not only identified the problem, it also recommended a solution. In June 2004, then-Deputy Treasury Secretary Samuel Bodman said: "We do not have a world-class system of supervision of the housing government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs), even though the importance of the housing financial system that the GSEs serve demands the best in supervision."

Bush got involved in the effort personally, speaking out for the cause of reform: "Congress needs to pass legislation strengthening the independent regulator of government-sponsored enterprises like Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, so we can keep them focused on the mission to expand home ownership," he said in December. He even mentioned GSE reform in this year's State of the Union address.

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