Last week, House Republicans, joined by three Democrats, passed a bill to fund the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s programs in the upcoming fiscal year.
I’ve already blogged on how it shortchanges key programs for homeless and other low-income people — and leaves the National Housing Trust Fund with no money at all. Amendments made the final bill worse by undermining HUD’s efforts to enforce the Fair Housing Act.
One amendment that squeaked through would stall the agency’s belated push to “affirmatively further” the purposes of the law.
As I recently said, HUD has proposed rules that would reduce neighborhood segregation and strengthen actions against practices that deny racial and ethnic minorities, as well as others subject to discrimination equal opportunities to rent and buy. Most House Republicans — and no Democrats — voted to block them.
Another amendment would deny HUD funds to support nonprofits that supplement its enforcement efforts — for example, by sending testers, e.g., black and white, to apply for an apartment or a mortgage loan and filing complaints when they detect discrimination.
Still another would prohibit HUD from using funds to enforce a rule it’s issued that spells out its interpretation of how the FHA prohibits certain policies and practices that have discriminatory effects.
All but 13 Republicans — and again, no Democrats — decided HUD should have to prove that public and private-sector entities, e.g., zoning boards, mortgage companies, intended to discriminate.
This comes hard on the heels of a similar amendment to the bill that would fund the Justice Department, plus agencies responsible for science and commerce.
Documenting intentional discrimination is extremely difficult, as you might imagine. How often do you have, say, a zoning board on record saying, ” We’ll prohibit apartment buildings here because that will keep blacks out”?
This is one of the reasons that virtually all federal court rulings during the last four decades have upheld the effects standard House Republicans would prohibit both HUD and Justice from using.
Well, the HUD funding bill isn’t going to become law. And the Commerce-Justice-Science bill probably won’t either. It’s doubtful the responsible Senate committees will fold the amendments into their funding bills — some maybe, but not all.
It’s also doubtful the full Senate will have a chance to vote on the bills any time soon. The Senate Democratic leadership is reportedly marshalling its forces to block substantive votes on any and all bills that reflect the spending caps imposed by the Budget Control Act.
And all will (or seem to) because both the House and Senate budget plans adopt them, with a clever workaround for Defense.
The President’s got the Democrats’ back — or perhaps they’ve got his. He’s said he’ll veto any appropriations bill that adheres to the caps. Even if Republicans all hang together, they don’t have enough votes in either the House or Senate to override a veto.
So even if too many Senate Democrats defect from the block-all strategy, the HUD funding bill will ultimately become a bargaining chip in negotiations to avert a massive government shutdown.
Why am I bothering with the pernicious amendments then? Well, we’re coming up on elections, as anyone not living in a cave knows. What may seem futile, politically-motivated gestures now won’t necessarily be in 2017.
And it won’t take an amendment to the FHA to undermine the law’s intent. Nor so-called budget riders, i.e., backdoor policy changes tacked onto appropriations bills. We know from experience that if an administration doesn’t like an intentionally broad civil rights law, it can minimize its reach.
A ProPublica report tells us how Nixon prevented his HUD Secretary (former Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s dad) from using the agency’s grant-making authority to desegregate predominantly white neighborhoods.
That’s not the only strategy administrations have used to minimize the effectiveness of the FHA. For example, Reagan’s Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights refused HUD’s requests to prosecute violators of the law unless the agency had clear evidence of an intent to discriminate.
And then as now, HUD couldn’t go to court on its own. So federal litigation to enforce the FHA ground to a halt. The House Republican majority apparently wants to set the clock back.
Like I said, the House appropriations bills aren’t going to become law. But they’re a clear warning, should one need it, that what’s happened before could happen again.
And, as before, an administration could deny not only fair housing, but other opportunities, e.g., for a decent, appropriate education, employment, timely health care, to racial and ethnic minorities, people with disabilities and others our civil rights laws are supposed to protect.