This blog post was written by Jake Hiserman, graduate assistant working on Congressman Alan Steelman’s papers.
Mark Twain, the illustrious American journalist and satirist, once quipped: “It is not worthwhile to try to keep history from repeating itself, for man’s character will always make the preventing of the repetitions impossible.” A constant theme in American political life is the push-and-pull of different interests. After all, tension between state interests or the federal concerns continually define the governing process. This remains particularly evident in the 2008 housing crisis, which parallels a 1974 crisis. Congressional papers provide dual insight——from the governed and the government—into the complex housing crises of 1974 and 2008.
One part of the housing crises for Congressman Alan Steelman in 1974 and for Congressman Chet Edwards in 2008 was the Real Estate Settlement and Procedures Act (RESPA). What was RESPA? It was a law that enforced “more effective advance disclosure to home buyers and sellers of settlement costs” and “elimination of kickbacks or referral fees that tend to increase unnecessarily the costs of certain settlement services,” among other reforms. Basically, this rule made hidden fees transparent and cut back excessive signing fees for home buyers.
The larger volume of constituent and government correspondence on RESPA in Steelman’s collection suggests its great salience in his district in 1974. There were 24 pieces of mail from constituents (including three from realtors) to Steelman. One realtor wrote him on a brown paper bag—and mailed it! The realtor lamented the financial and economic burden inherent in compliance with RESPA. The large volume of mail for Steelman seems to indicate RESPA’s wide bearing upon Steelman’s district. Nevertheless, this narrative does not hold up.
Steelman wrote in his reply to constituents: “I realize that settlement costs and attorney fees are minimal in Texas, and therefore, federal guidelines are not needed. Yet, in other parts of the country, state and local mechanisms have either failed to maintain reasonable fees or do not exist.” In this case, Steelman guarded struggling homebuyers in other states even though his constituency was not affected.
Chet Edwards’ communication on RESPA was in the form of one letter from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which implemented and governed RESPA. He originally wrote the HUD on August 7, 2008, inquiring about “the Department’s efforts to simply and improve disclosures under. . .RESPA.” The response of the Assistant Secretary indicates what the HUD sees as the heart of the issue ——”consumers not fully understanding their loan terms and costs.” Here, Edwards advocates for greater transparency about fees for all American homebuyers and HUD agrees.
Consequently, Steelman and Edwards both demonstrate concern for their Texas constituents but also attend to their broader constituency, the American people as a whole. The housing crises illustrate the intricacy of representation and federalism: a tension between the nation and the state or locale. Steelman and Edwards both demonstrate their balanced representation of the national interest, a vital part of the local and national dialectic demanded of a Congressional representative. Their words and actions remain a model for Congressmen today facing similar constituent concerns.