Editorial: Watt wins approval

  • Posted: Thursday, December 12, 2013 12:37 a.m.

U.S. Rep. Mel Watt deserved confirmation as President Obama’s pick to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency, and he finally received it Tuesday as the Senate employed new rules to end delaying tactics both parties have used — or abused — to thwart well-qualified nominees.

Democrats strong-armed through changes in the filibuster rule last month, activating the so-called “nuclear option.” The controversial change means that the party controlling the Senate — Democrats, in this case — needs only a simple majority to end a filibuster threat, rather than the 60 votes required previously. Changing the rules of the game to gain partisan advantage is rarely a good idea. The political tides inevitably turn, and the party that initially benefits from the rules change will feel its future sting. We’ve seen it happen with redistricting. We’ll see it happen with the filibuster rule, when the balance of power shifts again in the Senate.

But for now, the rule change means that Watt, who was nominated in May, can assume a position for which he’s fully qualified. The FHFA oversees home lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the guarantor of roughly half of the U.S. mortgage market. As the Democratic representative for North Carolina’s 12th Congressional District for better than two decades, Watt was involved in housing policy through his tenure on the House Financial Services Committee. He has experience as a business and real estate lawyer. He had the support of leaders in the real estate, mortgage and building industries. And while the confirmation vote fell along party lines — no surprise — he had bipartisan support from two fellow North Carolinians who know him well. Sens. Richard Burr, a Republican, and Kay Hagan, a Democrat, both supported his confirmation.

Watt will take charge amid contentious times for the housing agency and the federal role in housing markets. In the wake of the housing bubble and mortgage crisis, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have come under increasing criticism that they’re too big, put too much taxpayer money at risk and usurp roles better performed by the private sector. Watt faces no small challenge in balancing those calls for a reduced federal role and regulatory reform against his avowed commitment to continue providing housing help for lower-income Americans. It won’t be easy. But now, at least, he can get down to work as his would-be successors in the 12th District begin jockeying for the seat he’ll soon vacate.

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