It’s a favorite game in Washington: Politicians want to identify the “root causes” of a crisis, usually so they can excuse bad behavior and spend more of our tax money.
Poverty’s a problem? Too many of our leaders want to find the “root cause.” It can’t be something simple, such as, “Individuals are making poor decisions” (having children out of wedlock, dropping out of school). No, the “root cause” must be “there aren’t enough federal welfare programs; let’s create some more.”
Yet this week, as the Bush administration and lawmakers are racing to pass a $700 billion bailout plan for Wall Street, few seem interested in digging into the real root causes of the financial meltdown.
Oh, sure, everyone’s ready to talk about root causes, but only if they can identify their own root. “There’s no getting away from the fact we have to go after the root cause here and try to rewrite these mortgages,” Sen. Hillary Clinton announced on CNN. But as the New York Democrat later admitted, “I think that everybody has to take responsibility.”
And indeed, “everybody” does, because this is the ultimate non-partisan disaster. Over the decades, the federal government entangled itself in the mortgage market, because policymakers of both parties decided it was a good idea for Washington to encourage home ownership.
The problem isn’t limited to the bad mortgages that Sen. Clinton mentioned. The root goes deeper than that. It’s that the government encouraged -- even forced -- lenders into making bad mortgages. And, again, this was a non-partisan policy position.
It was President Bill Clinton’s administration that set a goal of having 67.5 percent homeownership by 2000, a goal that was eventually exceeded, but only after lending standards were relaxed.
President Bush pushed even farther. In 2004 he asked lawmakers to eliminate the down payment normally required for FHA loans. Federal Housing Commissioner John Weicher told USA Today the proposal was the “most significant FHA initiative in more than a decade.” It certainly was, as it eliminated the very feature that had traditionally kept bad credit risks from obtaining loans.
Mortgage lending took what presidential candidate Barack Obama called a “reckless and unsustainable turn,” economics professor Stan Liebowitz wrote in the New York Post, “because of regulation -- regulation driven by liberals and progressives, not free-market ‘deregulators.’”