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Housing Finance Reform: Treasury Seeks Public Advice

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WASHINGTON — Got any ideas for how to remake the U.S. mortgage market? The Obama administration wants to hear them.

The administration on Wednesday published a list of seven questions about how to remake the institutions that provide money for home loans. The idea is to get comments from banking and securities industry groups, academic experts and consumer organizations.

The administration has not drafted any formal proposals to reform the housing finance system. Mortgage finance companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac nearly collapsed in September 2008. Propping them up has cost taxpayers about $126 billion so far.

Among the questions the Treasury Department is asking are: What level should the federal government play in stabilizing the housing market? What kind of lending standards should be established? How should consumers be protected from abusive practices?

The administration also plans to hold a series of public hearings around the country on the issue this summer and fall.

Shaun Donovan, President Obama's housing secretary, at a hearing of the House Financial Services Committee, warned against acting too quickly. Hasty action, he said, "could threaten another breakdown in the market" and increase Fannie and Freddie's losses in the long run.

But Republicans call this a delaying tactic. "It's time to quit asking questions and introduce legislation," said Rep. Spencer Bachus of Alabama, the panel's senior Republican.

Fannie and Freddie are government-created companies that buy mortgages from lenders and package them into bonds that are resold to global investors. As the housing bubble burst, they were unable to raise enough money to stay afloat.

Democrats and Republicans have disagreed over whether the government or the private sector deserve most of the blame for inflating the housing bubble.

Republicans argue that the two companies promoted homeownership to people who ultimately couldn't afford it, and were mandated to do so by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which required the companies to devote a portion of their business to affordable housing.

Donovan, however, disputed that charge. The desire to chase profits, he said, caused the companies' demise.

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., the financial services panel's chairman said he plans to start working on legislation "very soon" to reform the system.

"We agree the system needs to be changed," he said, adding that "simply ending Fannie and Freddie with no idea of the replacement would do damage at a time of economic difficulty."

Lawmakers, however, are facing midterm elections in November. That means little is likely to be accomplished in the short term.

"We're in the silly season," said Rep. Paul Kanjorski, D-Pa.

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