Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
February 7, 2016

Senate Leaves Watt in Limbo, Along With a Tradition of Deference to One of Their Own

The logjam of confirmations appears to be breaking in the Senate — just in time for the August recess — with one prominent nominee left behind.

The only loser in this game of fast-moving musical chairs is going to be Democratic Rep. Melvin Watt, the only member of Congress who’s up for a job in the executive branch this year. It’s a snub of a colleague that has no modern precedent.

The August break probably won’t improve the odds that Watt, the No. 4 Democrat on the Financial Services Committee who is marking his 21st year representing North Carolina, will someday be endorsed to run the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which would give him significant unilateral power to regulate the mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

If his nomination is effectively spiked by a cloture vote this fall, which looks to be the best bet at the moment, or if he withdraws in the face of rejection, Watt would be the first sitting member of Congress in decades who’s been nominated for a confirm-able position and then denied by the Senate.

There has been significant trouble for some former senators, most recently this winter, when most of his previous GOP colleagues were against making Chuck Hagel secretary of Defense. But the fate of an incumbent lawmaker’s nomination has been as close to a sure thing as there’s been on the congressional calendar.

The previous five members picked by President Barack Obama for administration jobs all cruised through without any discernible dissent. So did the half-dozen people President George W. Bush plucked from Congress for senior executive branch positions.

What’s different this time? It’s complicated, but there’s no tangible evidence of any personal animosity toward Watt. He seems pretty well regarded in the Senate as a liberal who’s a skilled and willing negotiator on legislation he’s had a hand in writing on both the Financial Services and Judiciary committees, where he’s also risen to fourth in Democratic seniority.

The easiest answer is that the Senate is just as polarized since its filibuster confrontation was averted two weeks ago, with Republicans who feel they were outmaneuvered in that showdown determined to extract some revenge.

They have concluded that Watt is the easiest mark, even suspecting that his past chairmanship of the Congressional Black Caucus will surely lead some to suggest the GOP opposition is to some degree racially motivated.

Watt has become their target for retribution partly by default for a couple of reasons. The diffusing of the “nuclear option” essentially committed the Senate to filling all the seats on the National Labor Relations Board for the first time in a decade. The National Rifle Association has relaxed its resistance to making Minneapolis federal prosecutor B. Todd Jones the first confirmed director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. And the weak-on-Israel campaign never gained traction sufficient to stop Samantha Power from becoming envoy to the United Nations.

They also have more pro-active reasons for opposing Watt, which center on their fundamental disagreements with Obama about how federal housing policy should be carried out. Republicans expect, for example, that he would allow the president to carry out his plan to permit “underwater” home owners — the ones who owe more on their mortgages than the worth of their houses — to reduce the principal on their mortgages in a way that could expose the government to significant expense.

To that end, they are totally comfortable sticking with the regulatory approach to the housing market of the acting director, Edward DeMarco, who came to the agency in the Bush administration. The influential conservative Club for Growth is also pushing to keep the status quo.

For the sake of a sound bite, though, they have reduced that discord to the simple declaration that the congressman is not qualified for the position, which they say is so complicated and fraught with political complications that it’s best filled by a policy technocrat.

But that’s a potentially tough rationale to stick with when the lawmaker they’re talking about has been central to shaping federal housing finance policy since the early 1990s. He’s someone who not only represents Charlotte, the South’s main banking center, but also proposed legislation almost a decade ago that would have cracked down on the sort of high-risk subprime loans that helped fuel the 2008 financial crisis.

There are also the potential pitfalls over the long term for the Senate itself. Senators may come to regret setting the precedent that members of Congress should be disqualified for some jobs because of the very nature of their work as politicians elected to write the laws the regulators then carry out.

“There are some jobs I’m not sure any member of Congress is qualified to have,” said the No. 3 Republican on Senate Banking, Bob Corker of Tennessee, in explaining his rationale for opposing Watt.

“There are some people who have been around here for longer than I have who aren’t qualified for some administration jobs,” echoed Sen. John McCain.

The Arizona Republican been around long enough to have been in the minority that voted to confirm John Tower as secretary of Defense in 1989. He was rejected anyway, on the grounds that his personal failings were too profound for such a big job, four years after retiring as a power player senator from Texas.

Nothing remotely akin to that collegial spurn has happened since.

  • DrSquishy

    Time to end the filibuster.

    • JMH21

      Bet you change your tune if the Republicans control the Senate next time. LOL

      • dopper0189

        No. Filibusterers are an artifact of a bye gone era, in fact I hope Democrats abuse it when the next GOP Senate and President are in power so they eliminate (they would never stand for the same tactic). Majorities should rule.

        • JMH21

          I don’t think you understand the Constitution at all. Majorities should not always rule. We are a Democratic Republic that protects the rights of political minorities. If you think majorities should rule then you would understand that we would be passing and repealing laws every time the Senate changes from one party to the next. Democrats have used the filibuster on many occasions and Chuck Schumer is a staunch defender of this power. The rules of the Senate can be changed by the Senate, but only on the first legislative day of a Congress. And even then the support exceeds a mere majority.

          • dopper0189

            The House used to have a filibuster, it was removed because it was unworkable. Filibusters are not proscribes in the Constitution in fact the constitution states that both chambers of Congress can make their own rules on how they should operate.

            The problem with filibuster is that it used to be an extraordinary undertaken (you had to talk it to death) and was therefor seldomly used. Today because it just takes an announcement it has become easily abused. I would like to see a return to talking filibuster or make it more difficult to use (force those who want to stop a bill have to get 40 people showing up, not force sponsors to break it).

            The nuclear option is there for a reason. The Senate used to be considered a gentleman’s club because it operated with some semblance or respect and deferment. The fact that some newer members want to imitate the behavior of the House means that the rules of the House may also need to me imitated.

          • JMH21

            I don’t disagree with anything you have said. I would also go a step further. I don’t think nominees should be filibustered because the framers of the Constitution inserted the Advise and Consent function in Article II could not have anticipated that nominees would be filibustered. I think the President, no matter the party, deserves an up or down vote on all nominations, either executive or judicial. I have no problem with filibustering legislation because good legislation should be able to get 60 votes. I have concerns when legislation is passed on a purely partisan vote.

            I also severely object to “lame duck” sessions of Congress. They were used in the beginning because of the time it took for the newly elected members to arrive in Washington. That is no longer an issue. Once the Congress adjourns prior to an election it should not reconvene until January 3, the start of the new Congress. Lame Duck sessions have a history of producing mischief and in recent years Congress has developed a habit of pushing everything into such a session, avoiding votes prior to an election. I have a major problem with legislation like ACA being passed on a 100% partisan vote during a lame duck when a significant number of those voting for the legislation had recently been voted out of office.

  • runfastandwin

    Come on, you and I both know they hate him because he is black. They are unrepentant racists for the most part (I think McCain may not be but Corker sure as hell is) and it kills them to see any black Democrat get any kind of traction.

  • JMH21

    I would laugh at the comment about racism but it is so ridiculous that is beyond laughter. This is about an ultra-liberal Congressman who would change the fundamental basics of mortgage law. Perhaps your comment was tongue in cheek (TIC) but if not then shame on you for running to the race card when you have no real arguments.

  • Rumionemore

    Repeatedly pulling out the race card does little to move the lives of African Americans forward. In fact, the Trayvon Martin saga on its own is creating a wider gap between and among races.
    Resentment and frustration seep into the mindset of the business world as well as the wider community who, to a great extent, have worked hard to help African Americans to have better lives. Blacks are being played by media and by politicians of their own race. For a news cycle, Eric Holder yammered endlessly about injustice and unfairness, knowing all along he cannot and will not bring any charges re: the Martin-Zimmerman situation, gun laws or anything else surrounding a new wave of racial unrest. He and others like him are shameful.

  • dopper0189

    The GOP is just trying to stick it to Obama and his supporters. I hope Harry Reid really makes this an issue, and forces this through. Watts is qualified, and their are no serious reasons to stop him. Calling him unqualified or no knowledge enough, is just race baiting, his qualification in both regards are impeccable.

    Presidents regardless of party deserve to nominate people of their choosing, unless the nominee is corrupt, incompetent, etc. Nominees should not be rejected on ideology unless they far out of the mainstream. Being a liberal or conservative can’t be a disqualifier (only being an extreme rightwinger or extreme leftwinger).

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