News coverage of the Senate’s confirmation of Congressman Mel Watt on Tuesday to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency was all about politics, not the housing or banking issues he now has to address. Nominated by President Barack Obama in May, Republicans blocked his approval for seven months. They claimed that Watt was not qualified for the position, despite his Yale law degree and his two decades of service on the House Financial Services Committee. In fact, their opposition had nothing to do with Watt’s qualifications. He was simply a victim of Washington’s partisan gridlock. On October 31, the Senate voted 56-42 on his behalf, but it was four votes shy of the 60 needed on the cloture motion to move forward. That made Watt the first sitting member of Congress since 1843 to be rejected by his peers for a cabinet-level position.
For Democrats, the Republicans’ rejection of Watt, as well as their rejection of Patricia Millett for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, was the straw the broke the camel’s back. It galvanized them to change the rules to allow the President to make executive-level and court appointments by garnering a simple majority. Under the new rules, Watt finally got the support he needed, securing a 57 to 41 vote to lead the powerful agency that regulates mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which own or guarantee about half of the nation’s mortgages.
Although news reports paid little attention to Watt’s new responsibilities as FHFA director, housing and bank reform advocates view his confirmation as a major victory.
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