Rural Housing: An Election Day Post-Mortem

For those of us in the rural housing silo, the most significant November 4 result may be a fairly ho-hum and fully expected re-election in Eastern Kentucky. In the nation’s most rural Congressional district, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) ran against the same Democratic opponent he defeated in 2012 with 78 percent of the vote. Congressman Rogers’s re-election is actually great news for rural housing.
He has been a very strong champion of the USDA rural housing programs and has sharply resisted the Obama administration’s proposals of the last three years to cut or eliminate those programs. In fact, given his power over the federal purse as Appropriations Chairman, if Mr. Rogers had supported the proposed Obama cuts, the USDA’s decades-old low-income housing program would now be either severely reduced or just gone completely. Instead the Congressman has admirably led bi-partisan rejection of the cuts. In March of this year, he issued a detailed and strongly worded statement against the cuts, pointing out that housing nonprofits in his district had used the USDA programs very successfully. His support will still be needed if the President’s 2016 budget, due out in February, still has big proposed reductions for rural housing.

The elephant in the corner for rural housing may be renewal of Section 521 Rental Assistance contracts for USDA Section 515 multifamily projects and Section 514/516 farmworker housing. This rural version of Section 8 subsidizes rents for very low-income tenants. Increasingly, there are insufficient funds to renew aid for all currently assisted tenants. The elections will not decide anything new on this issue, but Congress, USDA, and practitioners will need to find solutions soon.

The elections will lead to some personnel changes. With Representatives Tom Latham of Iowa and Ed Pastor of Arizona retiring, the House Transportation-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee will have a new chair and ranking minority member. There are also retirements coming in the “other body.” The Senate Appropriations Committee will be different on the Democratic side next year due to retirements–Tom Harkin of Iowa and Tim Johnson of South Dakota. Senator Johnson is also chair of the Banking Committee, where GSE reform legislation and any housing authorizing bills live or die. So this year’s Johnson-Crapo bill will next year be differently titled, at the very least.

In three tough re-election fights for Committee Democrats–Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, and Mark Begich of Alaska–Landrieu was the only winner. Now, Senator Pryor is soon-to-be former chairman of the Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee.

One factor that is often overlooked is the role of Congressional staff. When members retire or are defeated, their staffers go too, maybe to work elsewhere on the hill, but often not. But when control of the House or Senate changes, committee staff may not change at all, especially if the committee chairs and ranking minority members just switch titles.  The staff will change offices, but may be the same people. Some new staff may come in if there is a new chairman or ranking member due to defeat, retirement, or term limits on committee leadership.

Finally, another overlooked reality is the bipartisan nature of much, maybe most, actual legislation and legislative work, especially in appropriations and at the staff level. The process is mostly not the partisan food fights of the TV talk shows or some public debates. The election will probably not have much impact here.

(Photo credit: Flickr user Jimmy Emerson, DVM, CC BY-NC-ND)

Joe Belden is a writer and lecturer based in Washington, D.C. He was deputy executive director of the Housing Assistance Council.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.