WASHINGTON -- Now that Congress has all but ended its 1994 session, the "what-if" game can begin.
Second-guessers could have a field day on a range of issues, from health care reform to renewal of the Superfund law to reauthorization of the Clean Water Act, none of which was completed by lawmakers. Congress will return for a couple of days next month, but only to vote on the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.
One of the more interesting what-if scenarios involves the housing reauthorization bill, which seemed to be speeding toward enactment until it hit a brick wall in the Senate in August. Despite a desperate last-minute push by housing industry officials and key lawmakers, the measure died on the vine like many others.
There was no way to know ahead of time that the housing bill would stall: It had bipartisan support, and ran aground only because Republicans attacked any bills they felt could help Democrats at the polls in November.
But what the bill didn't have was a bunch of must-do provisions that were passed by Congress last April, and therein lies a field day for anyone interested in second-guessing.
The story begins back in 1993, when the Department of Housing and Urban Development decided to make a big push to sell off its nonperforming federally insured loans. HUD officials felt housing statutes did not give them clear authority to sell the loans, so the department proposed legislation restating the enabling conditions.
Last year was a kind of off-year for housing lawmakers, who had passed a two-year reauthorization bill in 1992. Rather than wait for the next reauthorization in 1994, the legislators moved forward in 1993 with the loan sale bill, adding to it some items to improve the HOME program and others that had been suggested by the housing industry and supported by HUD.
But Congress ran out of time that year before completing the bill. When 1994 began, the conventional wisdom was that lawmakers would fold the provisions on loan sales and HOME into the big reauthorization bill they were planning to draft.
But HUD officials felt they urgently needed the loan sale measure, and prevailed on housing legislators not to wait. So the provisions coveting loan sales and HOME changes were passed on their own in a small bill that was rushed through Congress virtually without debate in April.
Housing industry officials hailed the move, saying that such speed was almost unprecedented for Congress.
Now that the legislative season is over and the reauthorization bill has failed to pass, it is tempting to wonder whether the measure would have had better luck if the loan sale provisions and HOME changes had not passed on their own, but had been tied to the bigger bill.
Could they have been an engine that would have driven the housing bill past the political gridlock that ensnared the Senate in the last weeks of the session?
It's impossible to know for sure. In fact, the opposite could be argued: That, had the loan sale and HOME provisions not passed in April, they would have languished with the rest of the housing bill in October.
But it's important to remember the 1994 reauthorization bill did not, for the most part, break new ground. One of the Senate's key housing lawmakers, Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., repeatedly called the measure a housekeeping bill because it kept programs running and made some improvements but did not represent a wholesale overhaul of the federal housing system.
Thus, it seems there was never an "engine" or a driving force to propel the bill over any rough spots in Congress. Given the bipartisan support it enjoyed, the reauthorization bill should have been able to pass easily without such an engine. But political realities being what they are this year, the bill could have used the extra kick that the loan-sale and HOME provisions might have provided.