What Congress Left Behind

Legislators failed to complete a range of major initiatives during the 107th Congress, including the passage of affordable housing legislation and reauthorization of federal welfare programs.

Although these carry-over items suggest continuity between the previous and upcoming legislative sessions, much has changed. Republican victories on Election Day transferred power in the Senate, expanded the Republican majority in the House and emboldened the Bush administration with its perception of a new mandate.

As with all unfinished bills at the end of a Congressional cycle, housing and welfare legislation must be reintroduced in the new Congress to start the process again. Here’s a review of where these items were left and their likely prospects in 2003.

Housing Legislation

Most of this year’s housing legislation occurred in the House of Representatives. Marge Roukema (R-NJ), outgoing chairwoman of the Housing and Community Opportunity Subcommittee, sponsored a middle-of-the-road “omnibus” housing bill to revamp HUD programs and modify FHA mortgage insurance provisions.

Typical of omnibus legislation, the Roukema proposal was an assortment of ideas and favors culled from interest groups and program administrators. From the administration’s standpoint, the bill’s centerpiece was a $200-million homeownership down-payment fund.

The bill took a surprising turn in June when committee members met to consider amendments. A long-shot amendment by Bernie Sanders (I-VT) passed on a 33-28 vote, redirecting $26 billion in excess FHA revenues into a National Housing Trust Fund. Perhaps the only people more surprised than Democrats that this amendment succeeded were the eight committee Republicans who didn’t bother to show up for the vote.

Republicans eventually scaled back the Sanders provision to create a federal matching program for state and local housing trust funds, a significant victory for housing advocates nonetheless. The trust fund issue became a flashpoint that dominated the legislation and energized housing advocates. A stand-alone bill authored by Sanders (HR 2349) to create a National Housing Trust Fund gathered 200 cosponsors, nearly half of the House membership.

Welfare Reauthorization

With Congress’s failure to approve a new law, two temporary extensions have recently been enacted. More stopgap measures are expected before a final bill is completed in 2003.

Last winter, President Bush proposed increased work requirements, marriage for single welfare mothers and grant “superwaivers” to merge federal programs on the state level. House members approved these policies in their version of welfare reauthorization (HR 4737).

In the Senate, support coalesced around a bipartisan plan to retain existing work requirements, increase funding for child care and expand opportunities for education and training. This proposal was approved by the Senate Finance Committee along with a weakened version of the president’s marriage promotion strategy. Like the housing legislation, it too failed to reach a floor vote.

The current extension of welfare programs expires on January 11, just four days after Congress reconvenes. Lawmakers will then adopt another temporary measure, probably extending welfare programs through March 31 to buy time for negotiations on a final reauthorization. If the March deadline cannot be met, yet another extension will be required.

Prospects for 2003

Odds are very high that the 108th Congress will pass final legislation on housing and welfare. Odds are also high that both bills will pick up essentially where they left off: the bipartisan welfare plan will hold in the Senate, and the omnibus housing bill will include a matching program for trust funds. This prediction may seem counterintuitive in light of dramatic political changes, but it remains the most likely scenario.

Here’s why. The new chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Charles Grassley (R-IA), supports the president’s welfare proposals and is expected to push for tougher work requirements. Yet Republicans like Orrin Hatch of Utah and Olympia Snowe of Maine also serve on the Finance Committee. Along with other Republican moderates and nearly every Democrat, they will attempt to preserve the bipartisan agreement on work requirements. The Senate bill may worsen on specific points, but the basic framework should hold.

Considerable pressure exists for a final housing bill. Industry groups want FHA modifications and the administration wants its down-payment assistance program. It’s doubtful that a final bill containing these items can move forward without some version of the housing trust fund proposal. The default position will be to include compromises reached on the committee level this year, including the federal matching program for housing trust funds.

None of this is an argument for complacency.

Welfare legislation will be just as bad in the House of Representatives as before. A conference between the House and Senate to negotiate final legislation will be extremely difficult, yet that was also the expectation in 2002. Advocates, including the National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support, will have to force senators to dig in and hold the line.

Similarly, the matching program for trust funds is a decent starting point but not an acceptable victory. The House failed to pass the Roukema bill partly because leaders wanted to avoid a floor fight on the original Sanders amendment. They know the votes probably exist for a national housing trust fund. The National Housing Trust Fund Campaign will continue to join with other advocates in forcing this debate.

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Jerry Jones is director of housing initiatives at the Center for Community Change. For more information about the National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support, contact Sabrina Jones, 202-339-9328 or sjones@communitychange.org. For more information about the National Housing Trust Fund Campaign, contact Julie Eisenhardt at 202-662-1530 or julie@nlihc.org.

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