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The contingency plan imperative

Watching the catastrophic end to twenty years in Afghanistan, I was reminded of the people I knew there, their hopes and dreams turned to terror and dread, and the hubris of believing we would be the empire that succeeded where so many had failed. No one should blame the Biden administration for the failure of nation building, but the failure of our withdrawal is another matter.

Above all else, the withdrawal was a failure of contingency planning. Assumptions were made, debate suppressed, and narrative shaping eclipsed adjusting to facts and trends on the ground. The Afghanistan withdrawal joins other tragic leadership failures of the 21st century like President George W. Bush’s in Iraq and New Orleans, President Barack Obama’s failure to mitigate the foreclosure crisis, and President Donald Trump’s response to the pandemic that may have caused hundreds of thousands of avoidable deaths. Being President is hard, and the consequences of failure to deal with crises not of their choosing are immense. By comparison, President Biden looks pretty good, but we are only 10 months into a four-year term. How we respond to the unforeseen contingency defines how we handle the biggest challenges.

What does this have to do with housing policy? Nothing and everything. As Congress considers the largest investment in affordable housing in over half a century, we would do well to understand the list of contingencies that can derail it, and plan how we would deal with each of them.

Over the past several weeks, I’ve been surprised by how many of our members and stakeholders seem to believe that we are in a competition over how to allocate $330 billion. Some have insisted that as much or more than a third of this funding go to their priorities, refusing to allow for the possibility that compromise may be required. Others have relaxed years of advocacy because their programs were included in the House markup or have been supported by key Senators and their staff. NHC has its own list of top priorities, with plenty of room for others. Competition on behalf of all of our priorities is a healthy part of the democratic process, but we should not let the size of our slice of pie lead us to forget that it is not out of the oven.

We may not get $330 billion if the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill is cut to win 51 votes, as it surely will be. In fact, the total amount we get may be less than the largest of some of the items in the current bill, if we fail to effectively work together. Even more concerning, there are many ways we can get nothing at all. Below I summarize five factors for which we all must plan, leverage our common resources, and take nothing for granted along the way. The prize for working together is the largest investment in housing since the 1968 Housing and Community Development Act. I am reminded of this every day, as a pen President Lyndon B. Johnson used to sign it into law is on the wall beside my desk.

  • The Debt Limit. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has made clear he will not support an increase in the debt limit. Without ten Republican votes (or 51 Democrat votes to suspend the filibuster), the Debt Limit will not be raised and the nation will be at risk of default. This means that Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) may have to make major concessions on spending to get this must pass legislation to the President in time. It’s important to keep in mind that the Debt Limit must be raised, not only to accommodate current levels of debt through at least FY 2022, but an additional $1 trillion to cover the bipartisan infrastructure bill and up to $3.5 trillion to cover the budget reconciliation. In this contingency, moderate Democrats and Republicans have all the leverage – and the necessary votes.
  • The Infrastructure Bill. The infrastructure bill was passed with a bipartisan majority in the Senate. Even Sen. McConnell voted for it. It is its own leverage as a result. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) agreed to hold off bringing the bill to the House floor on September 27 after negotiations with Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), Carolyn Bourdeaux (D-Ga.), Filemon Vela (D-Tex.), Jared Golden (D-Maine), Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.), Vicente Gonzalez (D-Tex.), Ed Case (D-Hawaii), Jim Costa (D-Calif.), and Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), who threatened to vote against the first step in the Budget Reconciliation process. Will they vote for a budget reconciliation bill if they don’t get their vote and will progressives vote for the bipartisan infrastructure bill if they do? Mutually assured destruction could be the outcome if cooler heads don’t prevail.
  • Intransigence by moderate Democrats. Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) have tremendous leverage over the outcome of the entire web of legislative proposals. But if they play their hand badly, we could all end up with less than nothing – and they could own the consequences. They need to know where our priorities positively impact their constituents. In West Virginia, the problem is not homeownership – the state has one of the highest homeownership rates in the nation, or affordable housing. The problem in West Virginia is the quality of affordable housing. Sen. Manchin needs to know how the bill will address his needs. The case is more traditional in Arizona. There, we need to be sure Sen. Sinema has heard from all of her state’s housing stakeholders.
  • Intransigence by progressive Democrats. 50 votes in the Senate does not a mandate make. Neither does 220 votes in the House. But you’d never know it from listening to many progressive Democrats on MSNBC. We know the need for trillions of dollars of investment is there, but the votes to address all of the needs in one piece of legislation is not. Compromise isn’t an option – it is the only option.
  • The death of a single Senator. While there is nothing we can do to avoid the tragic and untimely death of anyone, it is important to note that there are 15 Democratic Senators who have Republican governors and many of them are over 80. This is a ticking clock at the end of a bad movie and underscores the importance of resolving our differences as soon as possible. In the meantime, I encourage all of our Senators to look both ways before crossing Constitution Ave. and take their vitamins every day.

So, let’s not spend this money before it is in our hands. In the meantime, each one of us must think through how our organization can help contribute to a successful outcome in every one of these contingencies. A historic investment in affordable housing is at stake.

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