WASHINGTON — Lawmakers were sharply divided on President Obama's brief remarks regarding the housing market during his State of the Union address Tuesday night, as calls for more comprehensive mortgage finance reform grow louder on the Hill and across the industry.
During the speech, Obama reiterated his support for a refinancing bill to help homeowners take advantage of low interest rates, echoing comments he made during last year's address.
He urged Congress to pass a bill sponsored by Democratic Sens. Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Barbara Boxer of California that would help homeowners with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac mortgages to refinance.
But overall the president's speech largely focused on issues outside of the financial industry, and several lawmakers argued in interviews afterward that more must be done to fix the market.
"I would love to see him talk about housing, but not just in the rhetorical manner that he does," said Rep. Scott Garrett, R-N.J., the chairman of the House subcommittee on capital markets and the government-sponsored enterprises. "I have so many people who can't get loans and they can't refinance and the reason is because of the regulations he has put in, the uncertainty he has placed into the marketplace. His administration has unfortunately made it a lot harder for my constituents and my neighbors to get a loan again."
Garrett added that, "I think we need to take a much larger and holistic approach than some of his targeted plans that have not really bore the fruit that they had suggested in the past."
Democrats, meanwhile, were largely supportive of Obama's address.
"I was very pleased to hear him comment on housing. … Through the GSEs, Fannie and Freddie, we could refinance about 11 million people," said Rep. Al Green, D-Texas, a member of the House Financial Services Committee. "That would of course save them a lot of money, and it would keep them from going into foreclosure. I think it would be a wonderful thing if we could do this."
Green said the refinancing bill was effectively a no-brainer.
"The American people expect us to do commonsense things," he said. "Refinancing people who are right now underwater, some of them, but will keep their homes if they can get the refinance, makes a lot of sense. It's the thing that we ought to do given the crisis that we've gone through, and given that we bailed out the banks. … It was a necessary thing to do, but it's also necessary to let the consumer have a fair shake as well."
But freshman Rep. John Delaney, D-Md., a member of the House banking panel and a former banker, added that while it was probably outside of the scope of a State of the Union address, lawmakers and the White House need to begin reducing the role of government in the housing market.
"I don't think this was appropriate for the speech, but thinking about housing finance and thinking about a system that can gradually, but significantly over time, get the private sector back into the housing business is really important," he said. "I think that should be imperative for the Congress, particularly for members of the Financial Services Committee. Again, I'm not sure that level of detail rises to the State of the Union per se, although the scale of the numbers we're talking about does, but I think this is one where God is in the details, it's a detailed discussion, so I can understand why he didn't spend a lot of time on it in the State of the Union."
Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Texas, a member of the banking panel, also argued for getting the government out of the housing market, albeit as quickly as possible.
"I think one of the things we've done is we've made a lot of investment in housing and it's really time now to let the housing market do what it needs to do," said Neugebauer. "Quite honestly, right now the housing market is dominated almost entirely by the taxpayers backing up all of the mortgages being originated. One of the things we're going to be doing in our committee is trying to bring private capital back into the housing market to make it more sustainable."