The Corner

Senate AFFH Floor Debate: Lee and Shelby vs. Isakson and Collins

Last week 16 Republican Senators green-lighted one of President Obama’s most radical attempts to transform America, the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) regulation. AFFH enables a de facto federal takeover of many functions of local government, and amounts to a massive scheme to re-engineer the composition of America’s neighborhoods by race, ethnicity, and class.

Jeremy Carl has already described the political foolishness of “The Senate Republicans’ Latest Disgrace,” a depressingly familiar iteration of the split between the party’s moderate establishment and its more conservative base. But what about the floor debate in which the GOP’s factions clashed directly? What would Republicans who refused to support Sen. Mike Lee’s AFFH defund actually say in defense of their position? Would they go so far as to endorse Obama’s AFFH?

The answer, sadly, is yes, although it’s hard to say whether Republican opponents of the Lee Amendment truly understand what AFFH is designed to do. Their defenses of the regulation seemed to reference everything except AFFH’s core goals.

In defending AFFH from the Lee defund, Georgia Republican Johnny Isakson spent the bulk of his time talking about the work of Thomas Cousins, a developer whose charitable foundation sparked a dramatic turnaround in an inner-city neighborhood in Atlanta in the 1990s, with the aid of grants from HUD. The problem is that Cousins’ “purpose built communities” approach to urban revitalization doesn’t require the new AFFH regulation.

If anything, AFFH may actually undercut projects like the one praised by Isakson. The purpose built communities approach to urban revitalization targets specific inner-city neighborhoods for across-the-board improvements in housing, education, recreation, and the like. The strategy works by attracting middle-income families and businesses to re-developed areas, not by using government blackmail to force high-density low income housing developments onto suburbs and towns that don’t want them. Even left-leaning housing advocates remain deeply split over AFFH, precisely because many of them believe that HUD’s strategy of forced dispersal will undercut community development initiatives like the one held up as a model by Sen. Isakson.

Isakson’s argument amounts to claiming that because some clever people did good things with HUD grants in Atlanta in the nineties, an entirely new regulatory regime for HUD grants must be good as well. When reporter Kerry Picket asked Isakson to comment on cases like suburban Westchester County, which actually do typify what AFFH would do to Georgia suburbs and small towns in the orbit of Atlanta, the senator had little to say. “You can find a reason not to do or to do anything,” Isakson replied. I have to wonder whether Isakson actually understands how AFFH will work.

In her floor remarks, Sen. Collins’ quickly embraced Isakson’s not particularly relevant discussion of Atlanta’s purpose built communities as the supposedly perfect illustration of what AFFH is trying to promote. She then went on to parrot HUD’s AFFH talking points by claiming that this sweepingly transformative regulation is nothing but a response to a report from the General Accounting Office (GAO) which suggested that HUD more clearly define what would be expected of its grant recipients. Yes, there was a GAO report, but it’s absurd to pretend that a sweeping regulation effectively negating America’s long tradition of local government and pushing the country toward a regionalist system in its place is explained by that report. The real inspiration for AFFH is the “regionalist” movement created by President Obama’s radical community organizing buddies.

Defenders of the moderate Republican congressional establishment often claim that they’re not given enough credit for the many Obama initiatives they’ve blocked. It’s also said that the party base holds unrealistic expectations of what congressional Republicans can accomplish in the absence of a Republican president. There’s a measure of truth to these points, yet they certainly don’t tell the whole story.

Here we have a case in which Republican senators are not temporarily holding back from fighting Obama’s fundamental transformation out of strategic patience. On the contrary, they are actively endorsing and enabling one of Obama’s most radical measures, even if possibly out of ignorance of what it actually entails.

The contrast between the evasive and off-point arguments of Isakson and Collins and the blistering critiques of what AFFH actually does by Senators Mike Lee and Richard Shelby couldn’t have been sharper. You can read Mike Lee’s floor remarks adapted for publication here. Lee talks about the real intentions of AFFH, its actual legislative history, and true precursors of its operation in Chicago and in Dubuque.

Senator Shelby’s floor remarks deftly (yet courteously) expose the fundamental misrepresentation of the Collins Amendment, which pretends to restrict federal overreach but in fact does nothing of the kind. As Shelby points out, in her own remarks Collins admits that her amendment would prohibit HUD from doing something that even she believes it would never do anyway. In other words, Shelby exposes Collins’ effective admission that her own amendment is useless window dressing.

Shelby also notes, quite correctly, that AFFH will “lay the predicate for endless litigation” against every community that takes HUD money. That is exactly right. The creepy and controlling “Assessment of Fair Housing” that HUD grant recipients are going to have to fill out under AFFH is sure to entangle them in a legal nightmare.

It’s important that disappointment with the 16 Republican senators who caved on AFFH not prevent us from recognizing the courage, determination, and perspicacity of senators like Utah’s Mike Lee and Alabama’s Richard Shelby. Let’s remember that a substantial majority of Republican senators (37) voted in support of the Lee Amendment (You can find them listed under “Nays 37” here.)

And these are the names of the sixteen Republican senators who caved on AFFH:

Lamar Alexander; Kelly Ayotte; Roy Blunt; Richard Burr; Dan Coats; Thad Cochran; Susan Collins; Lindsey Graham; Orrin Hatch; John Hoeven; Johnny Isakson; Mark Kirk; John McCain; Lisa Murkowski; Rob Portman; Thom Tillis.

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He can be reached at


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