Senior House Republican says housing finance reform 'huge priority'

Reuters News
Posted: Jan 25, 2015 12:40 PM

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A top U.S. Republican lawmaker will revisit a plan to reduce government involvement in the country's housing finance system, and expects Senate colleagues to be receptive to potential changes, according to an interview aired on C-SPAN on Sunday.

Congressman Jeb Hensarling, who chairs the House Committee on Financial Services, said shepherding legislation to remove a government backstop for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would be a "huge priority," adding that he is willing to compromise to get a bill passed.

"We've got to get off that boom-bust-bailout cycle, and I fear that under government control, we are once again repeating the same mistakes of the past," he said.

Many analysts have put the chances of significant housing finance reform being enacted as low, after a bipartisan group of Senators were unable last year to bridge deep divisions on the issue. But Hensarling said he was optimistic after Republicans gained control of the Senate in the 2014 elections.

"I have strong beliefs about where public policy ought to go but I always stand ready to compromise...I ask myself, does this bill take a step in the right direction?" Hensarling said.

Fannie and Freddie, which buy mortgages from banks and repackage them as securities with a taxpayer guarantee, have been under U.S. government control since 2008 when their businesses collapsed during the financial crisis.

Through the two entities and other government mortgage programs, the U.S. government backs 70 percent of all new residential mortgages, according to a December report from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

In the Sunday interview, Hensarling did not discuss any specific proposals he was considering. He introduced in 2013 a bill to wind down Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in five years and replace them with a non-profit, utility-like platform that would issue securities without a government guarantee. But the bill failed to win enough support at the time and was not put to a vote.

The Texas lawmaker would have to work with Senate Banking Committee chair Richard Shelby on any potential legislation. Shelby has not yet discussed publicly whether he plans to tackle reforming Fannie and Freddie in 2015.

A bi-partisan group of senators introduced another reform bill in 2013 that reduced but did not eliminate a government backstop of Fannie and Freddie. That bill failed to win enough support among Democrats.

(Reporting by Aruna Viswanatha; Additional reporting by Lindsay Dunsmuir; Editing by Michael Urquhart)