By Mike Lillis
Infuriated by the Obama administration's handling of the lingering foreclosure crisis, several leading House Democrats this week suggested that Edward DeMarco should step down as the chief regulator of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
DeMarco, acting director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) -- an agency independent of the White House -- met Thursday with 17 House Democrats in the Capitol, ostensibly to brief them on FHFA's enhanced efforts to help struggling homeowners. Instead, he revealed that the agency doesn't yet have such a plan.
The news didn't sit well with the Democrats.
"I said to him twice, "Mr. DeMarco, if you cannot do this job -- or if you don't feel like you're capable of helping the people that we represent -- maybe you should move to the side and let somebody else come and replace you,'" Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) told reporters after the meeting. "That's just fair."
Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.), who spearheaded the meeting along with Cummings, delivered a nearly identical message.
"Either do something or get out of the way," Cardoza said. "And if you're incapable of doing it, then find somebody who isn't."
The lawmakers were also fuming when DeMarco, pressed by Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), conceded that he's never met a homeowner who's suffered a foreclosure.
"That shows to me the lack of understanding [and] the lack of urgency that is being brought to this problem," Cardoza said. "The members of Congress are talking about 1 in 3 of their constituents who come to their office in tears telling us about their problems, and the person in charge of the program has never talked to a foreclosed individual. That's unacceptable."
Cummings was similarly incredulous.
"The American people don't necessarily expect miracle workers, but they do expect people to feel their pain and give it everything they've got to do something about their pain," Cummings said. "When he told us that he had never talked to somebody who had been foreclosed upon -- or was in danger of [being foreclosed upon] -- to be honest with you, that shocked me."
In a brief news release Thursday, DeMarco vowed to bolster the administration's two-year-old foreclosure-prevention initiative -- the Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP) -- by "working hard with other market participants to enhance [the program.]"
"I understand their deep concerns for the problems in the housing market affecting their constituents," DeMarco said of his Democratic critics. "Our goal is to provide expanded refinance opportunities for all HARP-eligible homeowners and for the changes to have a meaningful impact. We expect to complete our work by the end of this month."
The Democrats, however, aren't sold.
Eshoo described the meeting as "a deeply disappointing one, with few answers and fewer solutions."
"There has been a complete failure on the part of the Obama administration to address the catastrophic wave of home foreclosures across the country, leaving families in despair and wreaking havoc in countless communities," Eshoo wrote in an email. "In order for our economy to expand, an effective policy must be put into place to turn this devastation of housing around.
"The administration's weak responses have barely touched "the tip of the iceberg.'"
DeMarco, Cummings said, told the lawmakers that FHFA will take several concrete steps to help struggling homeowners, including raising the loan-to-value ratio for determining HARP eligibility and reconsidering the fees charged to homeowners who refinance.
"He said that he recognizes that HARP doesn't work," Cummings said. "He said it has been tweaked in the past, but he admitted that now it needs -- and these are his words -- "a fix.'"
But the Democrats are already warning that FHFA's fix will be insufficient, estimating that it will help between 600,000 and 1 million homeowners refinance to take advantage of historically low interest rates -- a fraction of the millions of consumers who are underwater on their mortgages.
"[DeMarco] has the market power, with 30 million mortgages, to do much broader work than he's doing, and he won't stand up and step up and take authority," Cardoza said. "And he didn't deny that he had that capability."
DeMarco, in his news release, said any refinancing estimates are "premature" because FHFA changes have yet to be finalized.
Cummings said the Democrats' next step will be to ask President Obama for a meeting with "the highest-ranking housing officials in the administration" -- including Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan -- "to discuss these issues in a much more comprehensive way."
The lawmakers said they'll also request that Obama select a more permanent nominee to replace DeMarco, who's acting as a placeholder. The last nominee -- North Carolina Banking Commissioner Joseph Smith, whom Obama tapped last November -- was blocked by Senate Republicans, including Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), ranking member of the Banking Committee, who called Smith an administration "lapdog."
In January, Smith withdrew his name from consideration, and Obama has yet to name a possible replacement.
Cardoza characterized the GOP opposition as "shameful."
"I have not been easy on this administration," Cardoza said, "but I also understand how difficult it is to run a program when you can't even put your appointees in place."