Don't Blame Bush for Subprime Mess

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Housing Crisis: A new report from the Associated Press claims that the mortgage meltdown is due largely to President Bush's failure to act in 2005. Sounds plausible — until you actually look at the facts.

"Under pressure, U.S. eased lending rules," reads the AP special report's headline. But "U.S." is really a misnomer. The news service really means "Bush."

"The Bush administration backed off proposed crackdowns on no-money-down, interest-only mortgages years before the economy collapsed, buckling to pressure from some of the same banks that have now failed," the report asserts.

The report goes on to catalog what it says are Bush's crimes. Namely, that his administration bowed to "aggressive lobbying" by banks and delayed doing anything for a year. This, says the AP, is "emblematic of a philosophy that trusted market forces and discounted the need for government intervention in the economy."

All utterly wrong.

Here at IBD, we've done more than a dozen pieces — most recently, in yesterday's paper — detailing how rewrites of the Community Reinvestment Act in 1995 under President Clinton, along with major regulatory changes pushed by the White House in the late 1990s, created the boom in subprime lending, the surge in exotic and highly risky mortgage-backed securities, and the housing boom whose government-fed excesses led to inevitable collapse.

Despite this clear record, we're now besieged by enterprising journalists blaming Republican "deregulation" or the president's failure to recognize the seriousness of the problem or act. But these claims fall apart, as a partial history of the last decade shows.

Bush's first budget, written in 2001 — seven years ago — called runaway subprime lending by the government-sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac "a potential problem" and warned of "strong repercussions in financial markets."

In 2003, Bush's Treasury secretary, John Snow, proposed what the New York Times called "the most significant regulatory overhaul in the housing finance industry since the savings and loan crisis a decade ago." Did Democrats in Congress welcome it? Hardly.

"I do not think we are facing any kind of a crisis," declared Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., in a response typical of those who viewed Fannie and Freddie as a party patronage machine that the GOP was trying to dismantle. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," added Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del.

Unfortunately, it was broke.

In November 2003, just two months after Frank's remarks, Bush's top economist, Gregory Mankiw, warned: "The enormous size of the mortgage-backed securities market means that any problems at the GSEs matter for the financial system as a whole." He too proposed reforms, and they too went nowhere.

In the next two years, a parade of White House officials traipsed to Capitol Hill, calling repeatedly for GSE reform. They were ignored. Even after several multibillion-dollar accounting errors by Fannie and Freddie, Congress put off reforms.

In 2005, Fed chief Alan Greenspan sounded the most serious warning of all: "We are placing the total financial system of the future at a substantial risk" by doing nothing, he said. When a bill later that year emerged from the Senate Banking Committee, it looked like something might finally be done.

Unfortunately, as economist Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute has noted, "the bill didn't become law, for a simple reason: Democrats opposed it on a party-line vote in the committee, signaling that this would be a partisan issue. Republicans, tied in knots by the tight Democratic opposition, couldn't even get the Senate to vote on the matter."

Had they done so, it's likely the mortgage meltdown wouldn't have occurred, or would have been of far less intensity. President Bush and the Republican Congress might be blamed for many things, but this isn't one of them. It was a Democratic debacle, from start to finish.

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