Several years ago, there was an episode of The Simpsons in which Bart was supposed to deliver an oral report on Libya. Bart, of course, hadn’t done his homework and had no idea what to say.
He stood up, cleared his throat, looked at the blank page in front of him, and winged it "The exports in Libya are numerous in amount," he said, holding a blank page. "One thing they export is corn, or as the Indians call it, maize. Another famous Indian was Crazy Horse. In conclusion, Libya is a land of contrast. Thank you."
None of this made any sense, but Bart couldn’t stand up and say, “I have no idea what I’m talking about because I’m unprepared.” He had to say something, so he made up some silliness and got the ordeal over with as quickly as possible.
All of this came to mind watching Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson testify before the House Financial Services Committee this afternoon, fielding congressional questions a HUD secretary should've been able to answer.
The most striking exchange began with Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) asking Carson some questions related to mortgage policy, which is a subject the HUD secretary apparently knows very little about. The question was about the disparity in REO rates:
Porter: Do you know what an REO is?Carson: [Pause] An Oreo...Porter: No, not an Oreo. An R-E-O.Carson: Real estate...Porter: What's the "O" stand for?
Carson had no idea, so the Democratic congresswoman said, "Real estate owned – that's what happens when a property goes into foreclosure, we call it an REO, and FHA loans have much higher REOs -- that is, they go into foreclosure rather than into loss mitigation or to non-foreclosure alternatives like short sales, than comparable loans" at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
If it seems odd that a member of Congress would have to explain this to the HUD secretary, as if she were teaching a class to an undergraduate class, it was very odd.
But it wasn't an isolated incident. When Porter asked Carson whether he supports adjusting the interest curtailment penalty schedule for FHA loans that are in default, he gave an answer that suggested he had no idea what the question meant.
When Porter asked, "Do you know what the interest-rate curtailment schedule is at FHA and how it's different from the GSEs?" Carter replied, "Explain."
He later complained that substantive questions about housing policy were "in the weeds" -- as if this were a proper excuse for being a cabinet secretary sounding like a student delivering a book report on a book he hadn't read.
At the same hearing, Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio) had this exchange with Donald Trump's HUD secretary:
Beatty: Are you familiar with OMWI and what it is?Carson: With who?Beatty: OMWI?Carson: Amway?
The congresswoman explained that she and Carson spoke about this at a hearing a year ago, and she followed up at the time with a letter about OMWI and its director. Carson was still lost.
Beatty eventually explained that she was referring to his agency's Office of Minority and Women Inclusion. The secretary conceded he had no idea who his OMWI director is.
This is usually about the point at which some of my more conservative readers start sending me a note, asking whether I'd be able to answer any of these same questions in a detailed way. And I'm happy to concede that I could not.
But -- and this is the important part -- I haven't overseen U.S. housing policy at the federal level for the last two years.
There was no sensible reason to nominate Ben Carson for this job. In fact, during Trump's presidential transition process, he said he did not want to run a cabinet agency.
Trump nevertheless chose the retired brain surgeon for HUD, despite his lack of interest and knowledge in housing policy, and Carson was nevertheless confirmed by the Republican-led Senate.
Other than wading through assorted controversies and ethics messes, it's unclear what Carson has done with his time ever since. It's not like he's developed a subject-matter expertise in his own department's work.