Barney Frank didn't like our recent editorial taking him to task for his longtime defense of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the Congressional baron defends himself in his signature style here. We'd let him have his say without comment except that his "whole story" is, well, far from the whole truth.
Mr. Frank contends that he favored "very strong reform" of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, even before Democrats took over Congress after the 2006 elections. To adapt a famous phrase, this depends on what the meaning of "reform" is. Mr. Frank did support a bill that he and others on Capitol Hill described as reform. But on the threshold reform issue -- limiting the size of the portfolios of mortgage-backed securities (MBS) that the two companies could hold -- Mr. Frank was a stalwart opponent.
In fact, Mr. Frank was publicly arguing for an increase in the size of their combined $1.4 trillion portfolios right up to the day they were bailed out. Even now, after he's been proven wrong about a taxpayer guarantee, he opposes Treasury's planned reduction in the size of the portfolios starting in 2010, according to a quote attributed to him in this newspaper last week. "Good luck on that," he reportedly said. Mr. Frank's spokeswoman hung up the phone when we sought confirmation Tuesday.
The MBS portfolios have long been both the chief source of the systemic risk posed by the two mortgage giants and of the profits that so handsomely enriched shareholders and officers alike for decades. Without the extreme leverage inherent in those portfolios -- which the companies borrowed heavily, at taxpayer-subsidized rates, to accumulate -- their federal takeover might never have become necessary.
For years, Mr. Frank and other friends of Fan and Fred opposed not only bills written to limit the size of their portfolios, but any bill that in their view gave an independent regulator too much discretion to order a reduction. This was true of the reform that his House committee passed last year. Only when the White House caved to Mr. Frank and dropped its earlier insistence that a reform bill rein in the portfolios did Mr. Frank move his bill.
In his letter, Mr. Frank also repeats his familiar claim that Fannie and Freddie are vital because they support "affordable housing." This is political smoke. The awful irony of Fan and Fred is that they have done very little to assist affordable housing. Most of the taxpayer subsidy has gone to enrich shareholders and Fannie managers, as a 2003 study by the Federal Reserve shows.
Mr. Frank says he favored the disclosure of Fannie and Freddie compensation -- which is nice, but beside the point. The source of the rich pay packages was the Fannie business model that Mr. Frank fought so hard to protect. Instead of helping the poor, Mr. Frank was enriching Jim Johnson, Frank Raines, Angelo Mozilo and Wall Street.
If Mr. Frank thinks his "affordable housing" goals are so popular, he can always ask Congress to appropriate money for any housing subsidy he desires. But he knows those votes are hard to come by. It's much easier to have Fannie and Freddie take inordinate risks, even at taxpayer expense, so they can pay a political dividend called an "affordable housing trust fund" that politicians will disperse. In opposing genuine reform of Fan and Fred, Mr. Frank wasn't acting like a principled liberal. He was protecting corporate giants while hiding their risks from taxpayers until the middle class got stuck with the bill.
Oh, and the Democrat Congress may adjourn without addressing these issues.