WASHINGTON - A top House Democrat threatened yesterday to tie up the remaining half of the $700 billion financial-industry rescue money unless the Bush administration provides some of it for homeowners facing foreclosure.
"They're not going to get the [money] unless they get very serious about the foreclosure modifications and showing us how we're going to get some lending out of the banks," Rep. Barney Frank (D., Mass.) told reporters after speaking at a housing-industry conference in Washington. "At this point, I don't see that happening."
Meanwhile, the Treasury Department said yesterday that $335 billion had been allocated from the first half of the $700 billion program, enacted Oct. 3. That leaves just $15 billion remaining in that half - and Congress then must approve spending of the rest of the funds. Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr., who is overseeing the program, is weighing tapping the second $350 billion.
The main goal of the program is to get financial institutions to lend money more freely again, which would help revive the economy.
Of the $335 billion spoken for, $250 billion has been pledged for capital infusions to banks. In return, the government receives partial ownership stakes in the financial institutions. The rest was $40 billion to help bail out insurance giant American International Group Inc., and an additional $25 billion for a rescue package for Citigroup Inc., and $20 billion went to the Federal Reserve for credit protection as part of a new program to boost the availability of consumer loans.
Critics such as Frank say many in the public - and lawmakers on Capitol Hill - were led to believe some of the money would go to avoiding foreclosures, and they are frustrated that it has yet to do so.
Frank, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, told a lunchtime audience the lack of meaningful aid for homeowners has undermined the government's other rescue efforts. American voters are "increasingly skeptical" of federal aid to major banks and other large companies, Frank said.
Next year, after President-elect Barack Obama takes office, lawmakers plan to subsidize rental housing, change lending practices, and overhaul the regulations for companies that collect mortgage payments and distribute them to investors, Frank said. They also should regulate the amount of debt issued by hedge funds and other Wall Street firms, he added.
Neel Kashkari, director of the Treasury Department office overseeing the $700 billion program, said its primary goal was to stabilize the financial system.
"Imagine how many foreclosures we would have if the financial system had been allowed to collapse," he said at the same conference.
Discussion at the forum, sponsored by the federal Office of Thrift Supervision, focused on how broad the government's intervention should be, rather than whether the government should play any role. The United States is on track for 2.25 million foreclosures this year, more than double traditional levels.