Op-Ed: 2021: Democrats Driving the Agenda

February 5, 2021

By Brendan Kihn, Government Relations Director of U.S. Mortgage Insurers (USMI)

With the New Year came both a new Administration and a new Senate majority. Having held the House, winning back the White House, and securing the January elections in Georgia to flip the Senate, the Democrats have a trifecta in D.C. for the first time since January 2011. For Democrats, the electoral wins present an opportunity to push forward a much more complete policy agenda. However, given the narrow majorities in both chambers of Congress, Democrats will still have limits on what is attainable, as they will need every Democratic vote, and possibly a few Republican votes to pass key legislation.

Full Steam Ahead on COVID Relief and Financial Equity

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) became the chair of the House Financial Services Committee (HFSC) in January 2019, making history as the first woman and African American to hold the position. Chairwoman Waters used her gavel to conduct extensive oversight of the various agencies under her jurisdiction, including the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA). Chairwoman Waters embarked on an ambitious agenda, which quickly became consumed by the need to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020.

Fast forward to 2021, Chairwoman Waters has made it clear that she intends for HFSC to continue its important focus on COVID-19 related financial services issues and COVID-19 relief, as well as advancing policies that promote economic fairness, advance financial inclusion, and hold oversight of financial institutions and their regulators. Congressional Democrats and President Biden are in alignment with policies that advance equity – not merely “equality” – as evidenced by the Administration’s January 26 memo to HUD that recognized the ongoing legacies of systemic racism, and stated that the “Federal Government shall work with communities to end housing discrimination, to provide redress to those who have experienced housing discrimination, to eliminate racial bias and other forms of discrimination in all stages of home-buying and renting, to lift barriers that restrict housing and neighborhood choice, to promote diverse and inclusive communities, to ensure sufficient physically accessible housing, and to secure equal access to housing opportunity for all.”

What does this mean for housing? As the primary way that American families attain financial stability and build long term generation wealth, homeownership will be a critical component of the Democratic push toward addressing the persisting racial wealth gap. Specifically, look for HFSC to act on policies that:

  • Increase access to affordable mortgage credit via first-time homebuyer tax credits (in conjunction with the House Committee on Ways and Means), targeted down payment assistance (DPA) programs, and 529-like down payment savings accounts.
  • Increase homeownership rates among minority communities and close the racial homeownership gap.
  • Ensure fair lending through robust oversight of lenders and support of reinstating the Obama-era Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule.
  • Include the construction of affordable housing as part of an infrastructure package and as outlined in Chairwoman Waters’ bill, “Housing is Infrastructure Act of 2020.”

While the agenda will remain focused on these issues facing millions of Americans, the committee will also leverage its oversight responsibility of major financial institutions, markets and regulators. Already, the committee has turned to address the GameStop-Robinhood-Reddit events that rattled the markets last month and triggered bipartisan disapproval of both companies’ practices and regulators’ responses. 

New Chairman for Senate Banking Committee

In the 116th Congress, the HFSC reported out 62 bills with the majority going to the Senate “graveyard” where they saw neither consideration by the Senate Banking Committee (SBC) nor a floor vote. With the Democrats now in control of both chambers, however, Chairwoman Waters finds herself with a willing partner in Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), the new chairman of the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs. Sen. Brown’s policies are driven by his commitment to the “dignity of work,” and he has voiced support for housing finance reforms that increase mortgage affordability. He has long called for a “housing system built on a mission to serve borrowers and renters, no matter who they are, what kind of work they do, or where they live.” Considering Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac – the government sponsored enterprises (GSEs) – have been in conservatorship for over 12 years, Sen. Brown is keenly aware that housing finance reform is the last unfinished piece of reform from the 2008 financial and housing crisis. Potential action on GSE reform will undoubtedly be guided by principles that enjoy broad support among policymakers and stakeholders, including:

  • Providing regulation of the GSEs similar to public utilities with regulated rates of return.
  • Protecting access to affordable 30-year fixed-rate mortgages.
  • Requirements to serve a broad, national market.
  • Equitable access to the secondary mortgage market for lenders of all types and sizes.
  • Maintaining affordable housing goals and metrics.
  • Providing a form of paid-for government guarantee.

New Faces in the Capitol

Every two years D.C. bids farewell to some members of Congress while saying hello to freshmen members in the House and Senate. Whether due to retirements, unsuccessful reelections, or moving committees, the HFSC will lose nearly 10 members, including Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA) and former Rep. Lacy Clay (D-MO). However, the committee is getting three Democratic freshmen: Rep. Ritchie Torres of New York; Rep. Jake Auchincloss of Massachusetts; and Rep. Nikema Williams of Georgia. 

  • Following his victory last November, Rep. Torres had been hoping for a spot on HFSC, saying in an interview that “[t]he committees that most interest me are Financial Services because it has jurisdiction over housing and housing is my greatest passion, and Oversight, because I have experience with Oversight and Investigations.”
  • Prior to representing Massachusetts’ 4th Congressional District, Rep. Auchincloss served on the Newton City Council and has focused on housing, transportation and healthcare – the three areas he thinks are key to economic mobility.
  • Rep. Nikema Williams previously served as a Georgia State Senator and the Chair of the Georgia Democratic Party, and he is committed to “[t]ackling the COVID crisis, including housing assistance and making sure the financial system works [for the people].”

In the upper chamber, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) announced on February 2 that Georgia Senators Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock would join the SBC for the 117th Congress. The financial services industry is an important component of Georgia’s economy and in recent years Atlanta has emerged as a financial technology (fintech) hub. On several occasions, Sen. Ossoff has stated the need to solve “deep inequities in our financial system,” and his desire to boost resources for affordable housing as part of an infrastructure bill. The two freshmen Democrats campaigned as a team for the January 2021 runoff election and focused on COVID-19 relief, including for renters and homeowners. 

On the Republican side, Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) will be joining the SBC, as well as freshmen Senators Cynthia Lummis (R-WY) and Bill Hagerty (R-TN). Sen. Daines will be an important voice on policies concerning home building and housing supply constraints that are driving up the costs for homebuyers. He has long recognized that affordable housing is critical for a thriving economy in Montana and throughout the country, and has received the Defender of Housing Award from the Montana Building Industry Association. Both freshmen senators are fiscal conservatives and proponents of low taxes and a thriving private sector. 

“Reconciliation” – The Word on Everyone’s Lips

On January 5, Georgia voters took to the polls in a runoff election that flipped both Senate seats to the Democrats and created a 50-50 split in the upper chamber. Upon being sworn in as Vice President on January 20, Kamala Harris gave Democrats majority control in the Senate as the tiebreak vote.  Committee gavels switched to the Democrats on February 3, which will quicken the confirmation process for several of President Biden’s cabinet nominees and put Democrats in control of hearing topics and scheduling.

While Senate Democrats have a 51 majority with the Vice President, the legislative filibuster will remain in place (for now) due to a block of moderate Democrats – most notably Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV), Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), and Jon Tester (D-MT) – who do not support eliminating the 60-vote rule. As such, the primary vehicle in the Senate will be reconciliation, which allows for the passage of bills with 51 votes, but with restrictions concerning what can and cannot be included. The use of reconciliation to pass additional COVID-19 relief, enact changes to the tax code, and fund infrastructure projects will require every single Democrat vote, a reality that gives the moderate bloc immense negotiating power.

In 2021, we find ourselves with a new power structure in D.C. – a Democratic trifecta that will often be torn between big bold policies and seeking bipartisan compromises with the Republican minority.