Last November's election results brought control of Congress into the hands of Democrats. Three critical questions emerge as the 110th Congress gets underway, and the answers will affect federal issues important to the apartment industry.
Is this a general mandate for change, or a narrow rejection of the Iraq War? While some political analysts say this is a general mandate to change domestic policies such as tax, the environment, and the minimum wage, I agree with the many experts who believe the Iraq War was the major cause of Republicans losing control of Congress.
Will there be cooperation? Democrats have called for bipartisanship. This may be an empty political phrase, or it may be a reflection of the reality that Senate rules for all intents and purposes require 60 votes on major issues. And of course President Bush is positioned to veto any legislation he does not like.
An alternative strategy for congressional Democrats would be to pass legislation that is clearly one-sided in order to force Republicans to vote against it, thus setting up the debate for the 2008 elections. Of course this would be a recipe for continued gridlock for the next two years. Believe it or not, we are already into the 2008 race for president. What better place for candidates to gain free television time than in floor debates?
Will Democrats focus on legislation, or inquisition? There is a group of Democrats who have a strong desire to subpoena members of the Bush Administration to answer for crimes, either real or imagined. If this line of thinking flourishes within party ranks, it will result in acrimony and little chance for bipartisanship on other issues.
With Democrats in charge of the agenda in Congress, priorities and legislation enactment will change. However, the recent illness of Sen. Tim Johnson (D-South Dakota) shows just how fragile that balance of power is.
In coming months there will be hearings on several subjects. They are expected to be more open than in recent years, when there have been far fewer hearings on tax issues due to the effect of a Republican congressional majority and president. Given the split along party lines between the White House and Congress, there will be expanded debate on various issues, which bodes well for the apartment industry.
The past decade has placed far too much emphasis on the need for more Americans to own their home. This policy has harmed affordable housing development and led to more lending gimmicks used to entice people who otherwise would not be able to buy a house. Look for more open debate on the need to balance our federal approach to housing between owned and rented homes.
Representative Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the new chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, has a balanced view on housing policy. Meanwhile, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), the original sponsor of the Low Income Housing Tax Credit in 1986, continues to be a strong supporter of that legislation. In the Senate, Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), the new Chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, will likely be sympathetic to extending terrorism risk insurance and may also hold hearings on the looming property insurance crisis in the Gulf Coast and other high-risk areas.
Beware of restrictions
A more balanced approach to our nation's housing needs would be readily accepted as long as Democrats do not place too many restrictions on various programs, or change existing federal housing incentive programs to the disadvantage of apartment owners. Adequate funding of Section 8 vouchers would be welcome as long as the program is not made mandatory and the re-inspection process is not overly cumbersome.
The next two legislative years will be intense and possibly problematic, but they are replete with opportunity to make the case for multifamily housing. We are ready to play both offense and defense as the 110th Congress unfolds.
110TH CONGRESS AT A GLANCE
Jim Arbury is senior vice president of government affairs for the National Multi Housing Council/National Apartment Association Joint Legislative Program.