Sen. Tom Harkin is again delaying a Senate vote on Federal Reserve Board nominees as part of his effort to force a debate over the central bank's monetary policies.
The Iowa Democrat said Thursday that he is blocking a vote on the nominations of Edward Gramlich and Roger Ferguson because the Fed's tough anti-inflationary policies are hampering economic growth.
In 1996, Sen. Harkin held up Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan's appointment to a third term. The two-month protest also delayed Alice Rivlin's and Laurence Meyer's nominations. (Senate rules allow a single lawmaker to block a vote on virtually any appointment or piece of legislation.)
Sen. Harkin's tactic could keep Mr. Gramlich and Mr. Ferguson off the Fed board until early 1998. With Congress scheduled to adjourn for the year on Nov. 7, Senate leaders have virtually no extra time for a debate on the Fed.
Separately Thursday, a General Accounting Office report released by Rep. Richard H. Baker concluded that the agency regulating Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is unprepared to assess the risks facing these government- sponsored enterprises.
"At the moment, the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight is almost flying blind," the Louisiana Republican said in an interview. "It's time to seriously question whether the agency even has the ability to perform the tasks which it is assigned."
Rep. Baker said he will decide whether to introduce legislation to change the way Fannie and Freddie are regulated after he has heard from OFHEO Acting Director Mark A. Kinsey. Mr. Kinsey is to testify Oct. 30 before House Banking's capital markets subcommittee, of which Rep. Baker is chairman.
In other congressional action Thursday, the Senate Banking Committee passed legislation that would require lenders to automatically cancel private mortgage insurance when a borrower's equity in a home reaches 22%.
Senate Banking Committee Chairman Alfonse M. D'Amato said he would try to bring the bill to the Senate floor before Congress adjourns. But quick action appears unlikely.
Although the committee unanimously approved the measure, some members said they would oppose final passage unless several outstanding issues are resolved. For instance, Sen. Lauch Faircloth, R-N.C., said the legislation must allow broader exemptions for high-risk loans. Currently, the legislation exempts only those mortgages that meet criteria set by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac for high-risk loans.
Industry groups complain that many lenders offer loans that don't qualify, such as "no-documentation" loans to borrowers who cannot verify their income but make a large down payment.
"These types of loans are relatively common, but no lender would offer them if mortgage insurance has to be canceled," said Eric Mondres, lobbyist for America's Community Bankers.
The House passed legislation in April that would automatically cancel insurance when equity reaches 25%.
Lawmakers this week also tackled education-related measures that affect the banking industry. Tuesday, the House passed a bill that would let borrowers in the government's direct student lending program consolidate their debt with private lenders. Identical legislation was passed by the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee Wednesday.
The legislation is necessary because computer problems have forced the Department of Education to stop processing consolidation applications. The banking industry generally approves the measure but is fighting a provision that would cap interest rates at 8.25%.
Also Thursday, four banking and thrift trade groups came out against financial reform legislation scheduled to be voted on by the House Commerce Committee's finance subcommittee today.