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Washington Wednesday: Rare bipartisan vote passes Fannie and Freddie transparency measure

CapitolCAPITOL HILL – In a rare act of bipartisanship, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would let the public access more information about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two government-sponsored enterprises that work in the secondary mortgage market.

The Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac Open Records Act of 2017 passed on Thursday with an overwhelming 425 votes. No House members voted against the measure, although five did not vote. All eight of Maryland’s representatives supported the measure.

Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.-15) said that because the federal government bailed out Fannie and Freddie in 2008 – to the tune of $187 billion, he said – and placed it under the conservatorship of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), it should be subject to the same public records laws as government agencies. And it wouldn’t be the first time Congress has applied Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) standards to a non-public entity, he agreed.

“The American public has a right to know how its tax dollars are spent. The Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, is a key tool,” Ross said. “It is far past time we apply FOIA to Fannie and Freddie. There is precedent for applying FOIA to non-traditional, quasi-governmental entities: Congress subjected Amtrak to FOIA in recognition of sizable federal funding.”

Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-MO.-1) said although he supported the bill, he had some concerns about some of the amendments proposed by the rules committee. One amendment attempts to address the Congressional Budget Office estimate that implementing the act would cost $310 million (with $10 million direct spending) by allowing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to charge commercial requesters for the costs associated with processing their request. Lacy Clay argued that banks would pass those costs onto consumers, and that “any methodology” Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac used to set prices could be challenged in court, at cost to the Department of Justice.

“It is unclear how Fannie and Freddie could reasonably estimate how many FOIA requests they would receive, or to know how to distribute administrative costs equitably among commercial requesters,” he said. “There may be a better way to address this issue.”

Other amendments to the bill gave the enterprises six months to set up protocols and staff to handle FOIA requests and specified that if they leave federal conservatorship the FOIA requirements will be rescinded. Several members speaking on the floor noted that the House Rules Committee voted out all amendments offered by both sides of the aisle.

“The bipartisan cooperation that was demonstrated on this bill should be a model for this body,” Lacy Clay said.

However, he and other Democrats used some of the floor time for the bill to discuss an issue where, they feel, Republicans are not as focused on transparency: the White House. Lacy Clay expressed his hope that the leadership would also consider a bill to require President Donald Trump to disclose White House visitor logs, which the president recently decided to stop doing. Fellow Democratic Rep. Katherine Clark (Mass.-5) asked the Congress to consider her resolution that would require Trump to release both visitor logs for the White House and Mar-a-Lago, the Trump-owned Florida resort where he has spent the majority of his weekends in office and hosted several foreign leaders, as well as his tax returns. Clark’s resolution did not receive a hearing Thursday.

“While Trump fights to keep Americans in the dark about which of his friends he owes special favors to, whether it’s Big Oil, foreign banks, lobbyists at Mar-A-Lago or Russia, Republicans are more than happy to look the other way,” she said. “Transparency and accountability are not conservative or liberal ideas. Families at home deserve a Congress that works together to check the worst impulses of this unaccountable administration.”

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