White House Taps Former Bush Official for Housing Post
By Alan Zibel
May 31, 2013, 11:25 AM
The White House has taken an unusual tack in filling a key housing policy post, turning to a former Bush administration official who later helped design President Barack Obama’s response to the foreclosure crisis.
Seth Wheeler, a former Treasury Department official under the both Bush and Obama administrations, joined the National Economic Council earlier this month as senior adviser on housing policy, a White House spokesman said.
The move comes amid questions about the administration’s housing policy going forward and whether it will turn its attention to deciding the fates of Fannie Mae FNMA +21.39% and Freddie Mac FMCC +26.88%, the government-sponsored enterprises that were placed in conservatorship during the 2008 financial crisis. The administration has been largely silent on the issue, having studied options for a new system of mortgage-guarantees to replace Fannie and Freddie, but opting not to publish a detailed recommendation thus far.
Earlier this month, Mr. Obama nominated Rep. Mel Watt (D., N..C.) to lead the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which regulates Fannie and Freddie. That nomination has already run into criticism from Republicans on Capitol Hill, who argued that Mr. Watt lacks the necessary experience in mortgage markets.
The appointment of Mr. Wheeler could help ease tensions between Republicans and the administration on the issue, said Jeb Mason, a former Treasury official under the Bush administration.
“You need someone who is seen as less partisan and clearly steeped the in the substance of housing policy,” said Mr. Mason, who now works for Cypress Group, a financial-services consulting firm.
Mr. Wheeler’s role involves coordinating officials from Treasury, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and other agencies to make policy recommendations to the president on numerous housing issues, and meetings with numerous industry and consumer groups with a stake in the housing market.
Mr. Wheeler, 37, was a key player in designing both the Bush and Obama administration’s response to the housing crisis, working for two former Treasury secretaries: Henry Paulson and Tim Geithner.
He helped design what became the Obama administration’s signature loan modification effort, the Home Affordable Modification Program, which uses money from the 2008 bank rescue to subsidizes borrowers’ loan assistance plans.
From the outset, housing advocates criticized the response of both administrations as inadequate, and the Obama program has helped far fewer people than initially promised. Nevertheless, Mr. Wheeler won praises for being receptive to criticism and suggestions.
“When we sought improvements to the HAMP program, Seth was an eager listener and very detail-oriented in his analysis,” said Alys Cohen, staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center in Washington. “He seemed interested in trying to understand the real problems on the ground.”
The White House declined to make Mr. Wheeler available for comment. In a May 2010 interview with the American Prospect, he acknowledged problems with the foreclosure-relief program but said both presidents were committed to attacking the problem.
“I came in with the Bush team, I was proud to be part of the Obama team, and I think under both teams the focus was on getting the job done, and less on the politics,” Mr. Wheeler said at the time.
Mr. Wheeler replaces James Parrott, who has taken a post as a as a senior fellow at the Urban Institute.
Since fall 2010, Mr. Wheeler has worked at the Federal Reserve as chief of staff of the central bank’s office of financial stability. Before joining the Bush administration in 2008, he worked for Morgan Stanley MS +0.31% and Bain & Co. He has degrees from Harvard Business School and Columbia Law School.