High Wattage

May 3, 2013 

They are both winners, and President Obama doubtless hopes that Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx and U.S. Rep. Mel Watt will bring him some victories in his dealings with Congress over the issues that will confront the two in the high-level posts for which they are nominated.

Foxx, designated as Transportation secretary, would at 42 would be the youngest Cabinet secretary. He has dealt with some light-rail issues at Charlotte mayor, but he will doubtless rely on Department of Transportation staff members to do the heavy lifting on policy.

The nomination of the 67-year-old Watt to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored mortgage giants, is equally interesting in North Carolina, where he has represented the 12th Congressional District since 1993. Watt, from Charlotte, is like Foxx a lawyer.

Foxx may get some opposition from members of Congress who don’t think he’s experienced enough to handle a federal agency with 60,000 employees. And yes, his experience is limited. But how many DOT secretaries have had backgrounds with administration involving that many workers and the complex divisions in the agency? Likely, none.

The more contentious of the president’s nominations of two Tar Heels is going to be that of Watt. The congressman is certainly up-to-speed on issues dealing with finance.

However, Watt would be likely to bring to his agency a more consumer-oriented type of policy-making. Edward DeMarco, currently heading the agency, has spent a career in government, and in a stand that’s been controversial and unpopular with Democrats has resisted a proposal to allow Fannie and Freddie to lower the principal owed on some of the mortgages they control.

That has made DeMarco unpopular with Democrats and popular with Republicans, some of whom already have spoken out against Watt, whose position might be different from that of the incumbent. While the finance job does demand a philosophy of fiscal prudence, there remain hundreds of thousands of Americans who still need help to avoid foreclosure.

Watt also could be expected to support more openness in housing finance matters, and more sharp oversight of an industry that is bouncing back but which still needs close supervision. Watt is taking over, assuming Congress does not block his path, at a time when Fannie Mae has turned a $17 billion profit. Fannie and Freddie hold an interest in something like half the mortgages in the country, with a value of $5 trillion.

Will the presence of two North Carolinians close to the president’s right hand make a positive difference for the state? It should. It’s true that Foxx and Watt will have national constituencies, but they also will have chances to make policy of benefit to the folks back home, given that the transportation and financial challenges in North Carolina mirror those of the nation.

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