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Jan 11 2012

Congressional Game of Chicken: Recess Appointment A Dilemma

(4 pm. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

President Obama’s recent exercise of his constitutional authority to make recess appointments to the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and filling vacancies the National Labor Relations Board has created some dilemmas for himself and congressional Republicans. Republicans, of course, will continue to block confirmation of any Presidential appointee but are split as to how to address President Obama’s dismissal of the sham “pro forma” sessions and his four recess appointments.

With the appointment of Jack Lew as Chief of Staff, there is now a vacancy to head the Office of Budget and Management but the bigger issue may be the vacancy for a new director to the Federal Housing Finance Administration. That institution has been without a confirmed director for over two years, since David Lockhart left. The president is being pressured by the House Congressional Delegation from California to replace the Republican acting director of the FHFA, Ed DeMarco, who they say has been obstructing efforts to stem the housing market collapse and help keep owners in their homes. David Dayen at FDL News Desk reports that he is of two minds on DeMarco:

(DeMarco) has interpreted his mandate very narrowly. It’s a bad thing when he refuses to engage in principal reductions for troubled borrowers, even though that would make more money for Fannie and Freddie in the long run, because he doesn’t want to take the short-term financing hit. But it’s a good thing when he sues 17 banks over misrepresentations of the mortgages in the securities they sold to Fannie and Freddie, with the hope of forcing repurchases of those mortgage pools.

There have been signs that DeMarco is warming to a more activist stance. He agreed to the changes to HARP, which is more of a stimulus program than a program that will save homes, but which will allow expanded refinancing come March of this year on GSE-owned properties. Freddie Mac just initiated a program for a 12-month forbearance (where the borrower can skip payments) for unemployed borrowers, although Democrats maintain that not everyone eligible will receive that forbearance.

Most promisingly, DeMarco is considering a principal pay-down program put forward by a California Democrat, Zoe Lofgren, that would allow underwater homeowners with GSE loans to have their mortgage payments go entirely to equity for five years, waiving the interest payments. DeMarco said he would look into the idea back in October, and there have been leaks since then suggesting that principal pay-down would happen. However, there has been no final word, and officially FHFA “continues to evaluate” the Lofgren proposal, even though in a meeting with House Dems they promised an assessment within two weeks.

Meanwhile those poor Republican obstructionists have a headache, as Brian Buetler at TPMDC reports:

Scores of House Republicans have signed on to a non-binding resolution disapproving of Obama’s four winter recess appointments – Cordray, and three members of the National Labor Relations Board – all fodder for conservatives, who are furious about the existence of these agencies, let alone the recess appointments themselves.

“It’s astounding to me that the president is claiming these are recess appointments and within his authority, when Congress was not in fact in recess,” said Rep. Diane Black (R-TN) who authored the resolution. “These appointments are an affront to the Constitution. No matter how you look at this, it doesn’t pass the smell test. I hope the House considers my resolution as soon as we return to Washington so we can send a message to President Obama.”

This creates an election-year dilemma for GOP leaders who may not want to make a big show of their opposition to the one person in Washington tasked with protecting consumers from predatory financial actors.

But with so many key vacancies, President Obama has his own dilemma headache, not just to make more recess appointments but how to do it:

[T]he breaks between the last week in January and the first week in August will be very brief ones. Which means that if Obama declines to use his recess appointment power in the next several days, he’ll have three options, none ideal: He can fight it out with Congress and push for regular confirmations; he can wait until August, when Congress goes home for over a month; or he can broaden the parameters of his own precedent, and use the recess appointment during brief one-week vacations between now and then.

Republicans will likely keep holding pro forma sessions during those breaks, challenging Obama to take things further than he already has. [..]

As far as the Constitution and the Senate rules are concerned, there wouldn’t be much difference between a recess appointment in, say, April, and the recess appointments he announced last week. But their public rationale for the January appointments wouldn’t really stand in April. And after attacking President Obama’s supposed power grab, Republicans would slip the precedent in their back pocket, to be deployed when they control the White House.

We shall see if the president has finally abandoned all hope of getting any bipartisan cooperation from the Republicans.

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