For the past two years, Rep. Maxine Waters has been best known for her role as a foe of President Trump, including calling for his impeachment. Now the 80-year-old California Democrat is taking the reins of one of Congress’s most powerful committees, and attention is turning to her skills as a lawmaker.
“The most important thing is we’ll be able to basically define who we are, what we care about and the kinds of issues that we intend to be successful with, with or without this president, and perhaps with a new president in 2020,” Waters said in a recent interview.
Waters, who has served in the House since 1991, is the first African American and first woman to lead the House Financial Services Committee, giving her broad influence over the financial world — from Wall Street regulations to flood insurance.
On Wednesday she is expected to detail her plans for the committee. Among the likely top priorities: housing affordability and homelessness. She recently noted that the partial government shutdown had been particularly harmful to the poor who depend on the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“Millions of families that rely on HUD’s rental assistance programs are dangerously close to losing their homes due to projected lapses in funding,” Waters said in a statement.
Wall Street is nervous. The banking industry has been benefiting from deregulation efforts under Trump-appointed regulators, which could slow under pressure from Waters. She could also use her position to turn up pressure on Wells Fargo, which has admitted to various consumer abuses during the past two years, and Equifax, which had a huge data breach that compromised sensitive data of 148 million people.
“I don’t want to be the next financial institution to mess up,” said Isaac Boltansky, a Washington policy analyst for the investment firm Compass Point Research & Trading. “We will have big bank CEOs raising their right hand a lot more.”
Waters could also continue to be a thorn in the side of the president — who has called her an “extraordinarily low IQ person” — if she launches an investigation into Deutsche Bank, which provided hundreds of millions of dollars in loans to Trump.
“She is very outspoken, but she is also a first-rate legislator,” said former U.S. representative Barney Frank, who worked closely with Waters while he was chairman of the Financial Services Committee starting in 2007. Waters didn’t get much recognition for the work she did during the financial crisis, but she was essential, Frank said. “As an advocate, she is kind of sharp-edged. But that doesn’t prevent her being a constructive legislator. She is able to do both.”
One of her chief challenges will be finding a way to work across the political aisle. With Republicans in control of the Senate, she is unlikely to move major legislation without finding a bipartisan appeal. Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (N.C.), the ranking Republican on the committee, has acknowledged they disagree on most issues, but said: “There’s also policy areas where we’re going to be able to work together and get results.”
There are likely to be limited opportunities to find bipartisan solutions before the 2020 presidential election, said Ian Katz, an analyst at Capital Alpha Partners. “She has been around for a while. She has worked with Republicans,” said Katz. “There is not going to be any big legislation that adds to regulation of banks. The Senate is not going to agree to that."
One of the most pressing issues under leadership, Waters said in an interview, will be addressing the country’s growing homelessness and housing affordability problems. “It is devastating. There are so many people who, for whatever reasons, don’t have access to safe and secure houses,” she said.
Her perspective on the issue was formed, in part, by the global financial crisis when she heard from hundreds of constituents struggling to save their homes from foreclosure, she said. “As I traveled across the country, I saw communities that have been devastated because of the local foreclosures,” Waters said. “I learned an awful lot about what the banks did [and] how they did it. And this informs me about what needs to be done” now.
Waters introduced legislation in 2017 to spend $13.2 billion over five years on programs to end homelessness and legislation that would provide more resources to preserve public housing. Those are both likely to get more attention now that Waters is chair of the committee.
“Homelessness is very real, and when you take places like Los Angeles where you have such a high number of people on the streets living in tents or sleeping on cardboard on the sidewalks, it’s not simply about Skid Row anymore,” she said. “We’re going to do everything that we can to have bipartisanship on some key issues, and I’m very hopeful that homelessness is to be one of those."
A bill she introduced last year to restore fair housing protections rolled back under the Trump administration could put her on a collision course with Ben Carson, the director of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Carson has proposed raising the amount that low-income families are expected to pay for rent — tripling it for the poorest households — as well as making it easier to demand work requirements for those receiving federal housing subsidies.
“Philosophically, he believes that if you are poor or if you are in need, it’s your fault and that it is not necessarily the responsibility of government to help you reverse your condition and have a better quality of life,” she said.
Among the trickiest issues facing Waters may be weighing the futures of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the mortgage giants seized by the government in 2008. A decade later, the companies are still under government control, and there has been little urgency in Congress to tackle the complicated task of determining their futures.
“What is a better mousetrap? It has not really been discovered, but I do think that we have to work on redefining [Fannie and Freddie] because the basic mission is one that I agree with and I support,” she said.