Thursday, July 31, 2008

Today's Broder: Celebrating a Molehill, Missing the Obvious

Let's just quote Broder's introductory grafs:

If you were to ask Democrats Barney Frank and Chris Dodd -- the principal architects of the massive housing bill signed yesterday by President Bush -- which of its many features pleases them most, the answer would surprise you.

It is not the bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the embattled mortgage giants, or the aid the bill provides for thousands of homeowners struggling to afford their subprime loans in a faltering real estate market.

Instead, it is the section creating the National Housing Trust Fund, a creative way of meeting the chronic shortage of affordable low-income rental units -- a huge problem in cities and rural areas across the country.

Broder goes on to laud this modest achievement, one that raises far more questions than it answers. Let me list some of them.

1. Isn't averting a major financial meltdown that could lead to a potentially deep recession, throwing millions out of work for years, more important than this modest program?

I don't know that that's what the Fannie/Freddie bailout does, but if that isn't the potential downside of inaction, presumably we wouldn't be bailing them out at all.

2. I'm not Mr. Free-Market Booster, but isn't the best way to make housing more affordable to remove restrictions in the way of building more housing where people want to live?

As people like Matt Yglesias and Ryan Avent regularly mention, there could be a lot more housing in most cities other than NYC if zoning restrictions blocking or throwing barriers (e.g. parking requirements) in the way of higher-density housing were to be repealed. This would bring down urban housing costs, by increasing the ratio of supply to demand. This would also make our urban areas more compact, saving on transportation costs and reducing our carbon footprint - which also need doing. Why not just condition Federal transit aid on easing such restrictions?

3. This program would be funded through a guaranteed income stream via a tax on Fannie and Freddie's mortgage lending profits. That's nice for this program, but why does this program get a dedicated funding stream when so many worthwhile programs don't? Is there any rhyme or reason to which programs do or don't have dedicated funding?

And finally:

4. Broder titles his column, "When Congress Works," noting that "the bill had to survive several cloture votes and the threat of a presidential veto, later withdrawn." Seems there's a lesson in here about why Congress doesn't work most of the time. Like, say, the GOP's willingness to filibuster anything remotely important.

During the 2001-06 period, I don't recall a lot of talk about how the GOP needed 60 votes to pass most legislation - because they didn't. The Dems blocked cloture on a number of high-profile bills (e.g. estate tax repeal), but never turned 60 votes into anything resembling an iron rule.

But the GOP has pretty much done that, now that the Dems are in the majority. You think Broder might abandon his faux-evenhandedness of "both parties do it" and note the disparity in the extent to which they do it? Will elephants flap their ears and learn to fly?

It would be good if Congress routinely worked, and blocking cloture was a tool employed only to block the majority party's more egregious legislation. But if people aren't tuned in to why Congress usually doesn't work, because the people they rely on to explain this stuff to them don't bother doing so, then people won't know how to get Congress to work more often than it does.

1 comment:

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