President Barack Obama’s nomination of Representative Mel Watt (D-NC) to be director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) came closer to reality on November 21, when the Senate voted to change its filibuster rules. In a historic move, the Senate now allows a simple majority of senators to attain cloture and block filibusters, rather than the longstanding requirement of needing a 60-vote “supermajority” to do so. The new rule applies to all executive and judicial nominations, except U.S. Supreme Court nominations. It does not apply to legislation.
The rule change provides a path for Mr. Watt to be the next FHFA director. He was nominated by President Obama in May and voted out of committee on July 18. On October 31, the Senate failed to reach cloture on Mr. Watt’s confirmation on a 56-42 vote (see Memo, 11/1). The change means that a cloture vote will require only 51 “ayes.” Reconsideration of Mr. Watt’s nomination is expected in mid-December; he could be confirmed as soon as December 13.
FHFA is the regulator of the government sponsored enterprises (GSEs) Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which have been in conservatorship since 2008. FHFA has been headed by Acting Director Edward DeMarco since 2009. Among other failings, Mr. DeMarco has never revisited the “temporary” suspension of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac contributions to the National Housing Trust Fund (NHTF), as the 2008 Housing and Economic Recovery Act requires. Given record profits at both GSEs, NLIHC contends that contributions to the NHTF should begin immediately.
“With Mr. Watt at FHFA, I am confident that the law will be followed and hopeful that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will start to meet their obligation to contribute to the National Housing Trust Fund,” said NLIHC President and CEO Sheila Crowley in a statement released upon Mr. Watt’s nomination to head FHFA (see Memo, 5/3).
In remarks following the rule change, President Obama expressed his support for the action. “I support the step a majority of senators today took to change the way that Washington is doing business, more specifically, the way the Senate does business,” President Obama said. “What a majority of senators determined, by Senate rule, is that they would restore the longstanding tradition of considering judicial and public service nominations on a more routine basis.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) joined other senators and members of the House Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) in celebrating the rule change. He said Senate Republicans had turned down one of the CBC’s own—Mr. Watt—but that was going to change now. “From now on, any president can put together the executive branch of government,” Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) remarked.
Senators Tom Udall (D-NM) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR), junior senators credited with strongly advocating filibuster reform, applauded Senator Reid for the move. “Senator Reid had the courage to bring our democracy back to where it needs to be,” Senator Udall said. “I am looking forward to Mel Watt being at the Federal Housing Finance Agency,” Senator Merkley added.
Opposing the rule change were all Republican senators and three Democratic senators: Carl Levin (MI), Joe Manchin (WV), and Mark Pryor (AK).