WASHINGTON — On the presidential campaign trail, Sen. John McCain's financial services agenda has hardly been front-and-center.
After months of near silence on the housing crisis, the Arizona Republican raised the issue in March, yet he offered few specifics and downplayed the need for government intervention. He shifted gears two weeks later, backing government-aided workouts in a twist on a plan first championed by congressional Democrats.
Douglas Holtz-Eakin, the chief economic adviser to the presumptive Republican nominee, said Sen. McCain believes it is important to wait until the credit turmoil is better understood before committing government resources.
As the crisis unraveled "he always said … 'Let's watch, let's monitor, let's just see what this is going to be like,' " Mr. Holtz-Eakin, a former Congressional Budget Office director and economic adviser to President Bush, said in an interview last week. "Quite frankly, we still don't know. There's still some discussion about what the depth of the housing crisis will be. … Monitoring is the right thing to do in these circumstances."
Whether as a result of caution or a focus on other issues, Sen. McCain's financial services platform is less detailed than that of Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee.
Sen. McCain "believes there is a role for the government," but "he demands that the government be judicious in its use of taxpayers' money," Mr. Holtz-Eakin said.
The candidate has said he would like to create a Justice Department task force to investigate potential mortgage abuses and help state attorneys general in their investigations of lending practices.
Sen. McCain also would expand the government's ability to guarantee student loans, because the credit crunch has reduced such financing.
According to Mr. Holtz-Eakin, the candidate opposes government programs to help consumers trying to buy homes out of foreclosure — programs generally seen as a tool for affordable housing and for avoiding a buildup of vacant properties — because they could wind up encouraging foreclosures.
On the trail, the campaign has offered a few more clues, though with little specificity. Sen. McCain opposes the reduction of down-payment requirements for government-backed loans, and he has said he would remove certain tax and accounting obstacles for financial institutions to raise more capital, though he has not said which obstacles.
In the interview, Mr. Holtz-Eakin called for increased transparency in the securitization industry.
Sen. McCain supports reform of financial regulation, but Mr. Holtz-Eakin said the Treasury Department's recent blueprint for revamping the agencies was not "perfect by any means."
His positions contrast with the extensive consumer-protection proposals that have been offered by Sen. Obama, as well as with the McCain campaign's more detailed proposals in the areas of energy and tax policy.
Mr. Holtz-Eakin said foreclosures have spiked in only some states, but issues such as energy have an effect nationwide. "Sen. Obama puts forward broad use of money that doesn't target it very well."
Foreclosure is "an important problem," but "like many problems, it has places of targeted importance, and you try to have policies that are targeted as a result," the adviser said. "Gasoline is everywhere. Fear of losing a job is everywhere. Accordingly, you have broader solutions."
Mr. Holtz-Eakin said Sen. McCain's "Home plan" would help roughly as many borrowers as legislative proposals put forward by Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., and Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn. (The McCain plan seeks to help 300,000 to 500,000 borrowers; the Congressional Budget Office estimates the Frank-Dodd plan would help about 500,000.)
Similar in some ways to the Frank-Dodd legislative approach, Sen. McCain's plan would expand the Federal Housing Administration's power to move troubled borrowers into better loans, and it would force lenders to write down the original loans by 10%. (Rep. Frank's bill calls for a 15% haircut on affected loans; Sen. Dodd's calls for 13%.)
"I find it ironic that somehow" Sen. McCain "was viewed as either late" to the debate "or anything else, because he's ended up with a plan that's just as generous as Barney Frank," Mr. Holtz-Eakin said.
He highlighted one of the key differences in the plans. Under the Democratic legislation, lenders would choose which loans to process through the FHA program, but Sen. McCain's plan would put that power in the borrower's hands.
"In some other approaches … the lenders are the ones deciding who deserves it," Mr. Holtz-Eakin said. "That's not where the senator has felt it's appropriate. If you're going to target taxpayer funds, they should be targeted on those homeowners who want to stay in the home, have the financial wherewithal to be in that home, but are in the wrong mortgage or are victims of other circumstances."
The two campaigns are closer on regulatory restructuring. Like Sen. Obama, the McCain camp considers an overhaul critical to preventing a future crisis.
The protests after the Treasury suggested consolidating certain agencies and functions were predictable, Mr. Holtz-Eakin said.
"The first thing you heard was all the entrenched special interests, including the regulators, saying, 'No, no, no. This can't change,' " he said. "It's got to change. This is obviously a central issue for American homeowners. That's where the rubber hits the road. The regulators and the institutions have to look at themselves and say, 'How did we get here, so we don't do it again?' "
The campaign has not unveiled its own regulatory restructuring blueprint, but Mr. Holtz-Eakin questioned whether the Treasury's streamlining proposals were sufficient.
The Treasury proposed a three-layer structure: a prudential supervisor of all depositories, a consumer protection regulator, and a market stability regulator in the form of the Federal Reserve Board.
Mr. Holtz-Eakin said the British model, which hands responsibility for regulation and supervision to the Financial Services Authority and monetary policy to the Bank of England, may be worth investigating.
"Do you need three layers? Why can't you do it with two like in England? Those are fair issues for debate," he said.
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