WASHINGTON — A plan to tax large banks to pay for mass refinancings may have drawn ample industry attention in President Obama's speech Tuesday, but a quick survey of lawmakers found deep skepticism of it.
Providing little detail, Obama in his State of the Union proposed legislation to allow "every responsible homeowner" to tap into low rates, and to charge large banks a fee to ensure the refinancing plan does not boost the deficit.
But Democrats sounded lukewarm about the plan, and Republicans openly opposed the idea. They split more sharply over a plan to expand mortgage investigations, while showing bipartisan agreement with Obama's support for restricting lawmakers' own investing.
Including last year's plan to increase refinancings through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, an array of programs has already been tried to help boost housing prices, but with limited results. Following Obama's speech, lawmakers expressed doubts the new plan could pass Congress. Policymakers have previously discussed taxing banks that benefited in the bailout, but such plans have never drawn broad support.
"Anything about raising taxes, I think, is pretty well dead on arrival in the House by Republicans," said Rep. Scott Garrett, R-N.J., who chairs the House Financial Services subcommittee on capital markets and government-sponsored enterprises. "We know at the end of the day any tax is ultimately paid by the consumer, and so they may see a short-term windfall, but at the end of the day they'll be paying more."
Even some Democrats sounded skeptical that a refinancing plan paired with a bank tax could get through both chambers.
"I certainly think that the legislative action would be difficult," said Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., who sits on the Financial Services Committee.
Others said while they needed more time to learn the details, the fate of similar previous plans does not bode well for this one.
"I just hope that we can make it happen," offered Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee. "It sounded like a proposal similar to what was said before, and that's what concerns me. I just want to make sure that I study it to make sure I understand what it all means."
It was not immediately clear following the speech how exactly the new refinancing plan would work. The administration announced a similar initiative last year through Fannie and Freddie that did not require congressional approval. Under the earlier plan, the administration loosened requirements and made more loans backed by the two mortgage giants eligible for a federal program to help troubled borrowers refinance into more affordable loans.
Obama said in the speech that he would propose a "small fee on the largest financial institutions" to cover whatever costs are incurred by the new refinancing proposal. The president first called for a bank tax back in January 2010 to cover the costs of the bailout, but Congress failed to act on that proposal.
Obama suggested the new proposal — which would legislative approval — would be meant to reach a greater pool of loans.
"I'm sending this Congress a plan that gives every responsible homeowner the chance to save about $3,000 a year on their mortgage, by refinancing at historically low interest rates," Obama said in the speech. "No more red tape. No more runaround from the banks."
Some congressional Republicans responded that the housing market should be allowed to bottom out, rather than being propped up artificially.
"Really what we need to do is let the marketplace clear up the unsold inventory in this country, let the people who can afford their houses keep their houses," said Rep. Randy Neugebauer, R-Texas, who chairs the House Financial Services oversight subcommittee. "But if you continue to postpone this problem, this problem only lasts longer."
The division between Democrats and Republicans was clearer on the issue of investigating mortgage abuses, a move that would not require legislation. Obama announced the creation of a joint task force of federal prosecutors and state attorneys general to expand probes of the types of poor lending and packaging of risky loans into securities that led to the housing crisis.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, a member of the Senate Banking Committee, applauded the announcement. Like some other Democrats, Brown has criticized one potential response to the mortgage problems — a proposed settlement between large servicers and government officials — as too lenient.
While some state AGs have also balked at settlement terms, Brown suggested the new task force could get federal and state officials more on the same page in investigations, and maybe even result in a tougher settlement deal. (Huffington Post reported that the new unit will be chaired by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who has been a holdout in the settlement talks.)
"The president did the right thing. He widened and deepened the investigation," Brown said Tuesday night. "I think that means he'll bring in the attorneys general to help move this investigation forward and ultimately the settlement forward. The banks have to pay up more than they have."
But Republicans, meanwhile, ridiculed the new mortgage unit as a late response to the nation's long-running housing crisis, and as an example of government overreach.
"Shouldn't that already be done first by the state-level AGs and also by the Justice Department now for the last three years?" said Garrett. "Why did he wait three years if he thought we had to create a new entity, a new czar, to do it?"
Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., also a Financial Services Committee member, called the new unit "another layer of bureaucracy."
"It's against the law to cheat on your mortgage right now. It's against the law for banks to classify mortgages incorrectly," Pearce said. "And so I just see more bureaucracy laid on top of more bureaucracy."
Yet one exception to the partisanship was a loud round of applause in response to the president's call for Congress to restrict the ability of lawmakers to benefit financially from legislative information that will impact companies' stock prices.
Legislation to do just that gained widespread bipartisan support late last year after a "60 Minutes" report shined a light on the issue, including trades made by House Financial Services Committee Chairman Spencer Bachus.
"I don't believe members should have individual stocks in which they in their direct actions can affect the value of that stock. And they need to be very cautious," said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who chairs the House Oversight Committee. "And you know, the Senate has already looked at this. The House will continue to look at it."