October 21, 2009

Usairway’s 1:00 P.M Washington’s Reagan to Providence

The trip had been impromptu. The Senate Banking Committee, chaired by Senator Dodd, had called a hearing for October 20th, on the State of the Housing Industry.
The National Association of Realtors welcomed the invitation, particularly given our commitment to extending the $8000 First Time Home Buyer Tax Credit which expires on 1 December 2009. The Association President was home in Texas. The President-Elect was speaking in California. The third choice, the Vice-President was available and an hour away. So I was ‘selected’ to present our case.

It has been my privilege to testify before various committees of Congress over the past couple of years. It is a fascinating process. You provide ‘written testimony’ at least 24 hours before speaking. At the hearing, you typically are one of many witnesses. Most often you are part of a panel. Such was the case on 20 October. The first witness was Senator Johnny Isakson of Georgia. He presented the Dodd Isakson amendment to extend the $8000. After his presentation, various Senators asked him questions. The committee is large with 23 members. About half were there at the beginning of the hearing. As the witness was a member of the Senate, the interchange was very cordial.

Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Shaun Donovan, was the second witness.
He spoke at length and then was questioned. The difference in the questions and in the tone between the Democratic and Republican members of the Senate was profound.
The Senator from Kentucky, Bunning, really went after him, the administration, and the FDIC. It was a great confidence builder, when you were next on the schedule.

My panel included an economist from the Bankers Association, an economist from the Home Builders Association, and an affordable housing advocate from Connecticut. Each of us was given five minutes to making an opening statement, which recapped our written testimony. Just below the microphone, there is a digital time display and three lights, green, yellow and red. From 5 minutes to 1, the light is green. From 60 seconds to O, the light is yellow. At the end of 5 minutes, the light turns red and proceeds to count the seconds of you overage. Chairman Dodd was generous with the time. In other hearings, witnesses have been cut off mid sentence. In fairness, you know, BEFORE hand, that you have only 5 minutes.

Our panel began to speak about 1 hour and 55 minutes into the hearing. We continued until 2 hours and 50 minutes. The statements were somewhat predictable. Upon completion of my testimony, Senator Dodd, suggested the next time I testify before Congress that I be more ‘definite” in what I wanted Congress to do. The chamber laughed. It is hard for me to speak on these issues without passion and immediacy.

The questions were actually more valuable than the statements. It is where the conversation moves to substance and detail. With the exception of a critical remark from Senator Bunning, it went well. (He had asked about the National Association of Realtors recommendations for the GSEs: Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac. He did not like the answer that they were meeting, later in the week, to come up with recommendations. They have been meeting for a year, and will have recommendations in the next two weeks.)

At 12:30 we left the Senate Office building. The rest of the day and the next morning were spent lobbying and encouraging other Realtors to do the same. Forty Realtors had flown in from all over the country to speak to members of the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee. Dinner responsibilities included thanking the Realtor volunteers and repairing for the ‘Hill visits.’ At breakfast, we did the same.

At mid day on the 21st, my work in DC was over. A 1 pm flight had a seat for me on it. The Reagan airport was fairly quiet. Security was quick and uneventful. At the appointed time we board a shuttle to take us out to the commuter plane lot. Usually, the bus is full, this day it was not even ‘half full.’ We boarded the plane. My aisle seat 3B was ready. After many flights this year with overfull planes, this was strange. There were no passengers next to me, on either side. None in front of me, none behind me. Most passengers were in window seats. No one was within ear shot. Had someone sent these passengers a memo, do not sit next to Ron, if you want some privacy?

The engines revved, and we had left. As I sat alone, somewhat comfortable in my silence, I could not helped smiling at life’s ability to teach: You must take it as it come, for you are not in control. You can only control how you react. It is so frustrating that it takes many years to begin to understand the lesson. The window seat was empty because many of my life’s travelling partners had already departed, my grandfathers, grandmother, and father. Their seat was empty. But that did not prevent me from talking with them. Each took a turn in the seat. While all of the talking was mine, they heard everything. It was not an empty seat after all.