WASHINGTON -- The Federal Housing Finance Board can't win for losing. The little-known agency, which regulates the Federal Home Loan Bank System, is once again in the middle of a congressional spat that had the effect of denying it the quorum it needs to do business. It has not been able to muster a quorum for more than a year now. Two nominees -- former Rep. Bruce Morrison, D-Corm., and lobbyist Timothy O'Neil -- came close to winning Senate confirmation this year. But they fell victim to the long memory of Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Tex., who placed a hold on Mr. Morrison.

It seems that in 1982, then-Rep. Morrison was one of 57 freshman Democrats who voted against reappointing Sen. Gramm -- then a Democratic member of the House -- to the budget committee.

The year before, Rep. Gramm and other boll weevil Democrats defied their party by voting with Republicans m favor of President Reagan's budget.

The rest, of course, is political history: Rep. Gramm resigned his congressional seat and was reelected as a Republican congressman. Later he was elected to the Senate.

Because of Sen. Gramm's hold on Mr. Morrison's nomination, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., slapped a similar hold on Mr. O'Neill, President Clinton's nominee to fill the finance board's RepubIican seat.

History seems to be repeating itself. Just after the finance board was formed in 1989, the Senate also failed to confirm its presidential nominees. Back then, the chairmen of both the House and Senate banking committees believed board members should be full-time. Because the posts were supposed to be pan -time, the Senate Banking Committee held up the nominations.

Twice, President Bush used recess appointments to fill the board -- in late 1990 and in late 1991. Finally, in February 1992 the Senate confirmed the board members after reaching an agreement that their posts would become full-time starting in 1'994. Most of the board members resigned then, and the board has lacked a quorum ever since.

So far, the Clinton administration has not used recess appointments for any posts.

Mr. Morrison and Mr. O'Neill refused to comment on the matter. Calls to the offices of Sen. Gramm and Sen. Dodd went unreturned at press time.

A finance board spokesman said a little wistfully, "We were certainly looking forward to their confirmation because it would give the agency the quorum. that we've been operating without."

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