HELENA – One of U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg’s talking points on the campaign trail has been to blame the housing crash on the federal government for making it too easy to get credit.
But the six-term Republican himself once backed legislation to help people get loans even if they didn’t have enough money for a down payment.
Rehberg has repeatedly referred to the problems with mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as he challenges incumbent U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat. Rehberg often criticizes U.S. government rules that he says forced lenders to take bad loans.
And at the first debate between with Tester, Rehberg went further and said bankers, builders and consumers were not the problem.
“They were sucked into something believing that the government told them, that they can get something for nothing, that they can buy a home for zero down and zero interest, that they can keep doing that,” Rehberg said.
But during the Bush administration, Rehberg supported congressional plans to make it easier for people to get homes with less money down.
One of those made its way into law. The American Dream Downpayment Initiative was signed by then-President George W. Bush in 2003. Bush hailed the $200 million bill as way to help low-income families and minorities get homes they otherwise would not be able to afford.
The program gave poor first-time homebuyers funds for down payments, closing costs and other costs in purchasing the home, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The Rehberg campaign said that initiative differs from the congressman’s criticism of Fannie and Freddie. The congressman says the legislation he supported is different than the mortgage giants’ issues because the down payment plan had safeguards to ensure lenders could reject bad loans, properly helped families buy a home and that the program would end if it failed.
He argues that Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, by contrast, wrongly forced lenders to make risky loans.
Rehberg spokesman Chris Bond pointed out that Tester supported a 2008 bailout of Fannie and Freddie, even though the Democrat has touted an opposition to government bailouts.
“Denny believes helping folks achieve home ownership is a worthwhile, important goal. But unlike Sen. Tester, he doesn’t believe that when lenders like Fannie and Freddie make mistakes, taxpayers should have to bail them out,” Bond said.
The Tester campaign does not consider the Bush administration-era rescue of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac a bailout since they had government backing prior to the intervention. And Tester has argued government backing of mortgage loans is needed to ensure the survival of the 30-year loan that allows the housing market to continue.
The Tester campaign said Rehberg’s past support of down payment assistance demonstrates the Republican is flip-flopping on the role government should play in helping with mortgages.
“Congressman Rehberg was the government problem that led to the housing crisis,” said Tester spokesman Aaron Murphy.
The Tester-Rehberg matchup is one of the hottest U.S. Senate races in the country, with both sides expecting a tight finish to the end. Both are receiving millions of dollars in outside help as the parties vie for control of the U.S. Senate.
And both sides are making hay by pointing out apparent position switches.
The Rehberg campaign has hammered Tester for being a top recipient of lobbyist and Wall Street campaign donations after running in 2006 on a platform to clean up Washington, D.C., and for taking some outside spending while criticizing other sources of outside campaign money.
The Tester campaign has pointed out that Rehberg first supported the Patriot Act and Real ID before he then opposed them when it became clear the measures were unpopular in Montana.
Adding fuel to the fire, Rehberg appeared to again embrace the Patriot Act in a radio interview earlier this week when he said it was not a mistake and was necessary at the time. Rehberg, however, explained that he simply believes that some of the measure’s tools for law enforcement are no longer necessary.