Why Preston Should Have Stayed at the SBA

The housing crisis still doesn't have its Michael Brown.


Talk about a buzz kill.

There Steven Preston was, standing at the White House, with the decider at his side, wistfully daydreaming about his new job leading an obscure, corruption-tainted agency that's likely to play a leading role in a perilously complicated effort to pull homeowners out of the most terrifying crisis in a generation. But you just couldn't allow someone to enjoy his view from the top of the world, Rep. Nydia Velázquez, could you?

"Trading one troubled agency for another is short-sighted, and it could not come at a worse time for the American people," Velázquez, a New York Democrat who is House Small Business Committee chair, said in a statement. "HUD's crisis must be resolved without delay. But the fact remains, the agency Mr. Preston has been responsible for leading is still plagued by serious problems of its own."

There are plenty of noble reasons to get into public service—the opportunity to affect policy, the chance to better people's lives, Hannah Montana tickets—but it's tough to imagine anyone nurturing the dream of becoming the top dog at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Still, it's certainly a step up for Preston, who was nominated to the post today after serving as director of the Small Business Administration—one of the few Washington, D.C., agencies that is less inspiring than his new bureau.

The SBA is a small agency that funnels financing—through direct loans and guarantees—to small businesses throughout the country. There probably are toll booth operators who have more fun at work. Even worse, the SBA's efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina were sharply criticized as slow—even by federal government standards. (In fairness, Preston was not there at the time.)

It's easy to see the attraction of leaving the SBA. But Preston will have an enormous task in front of him at HUD. About the only thing that lawmakers, federal officials, and the presidential candidates seem to agree on these days is that a housing rescue should be run through the Federal Housing Administration, a branch of HUD (although the plans do vary a great deal in scope). And don't forget, the job vacancy was created when Alphonso Jackson stepped down amid an investigation into alleged corruption. So there will be scrutiny of Preston from the start.

The HUD job presents a wonderful opportunity to be the next great American bureaucratic laughingstock. After all, the housing crisis still doesn't have its Michael Brown. If the Democratic plan becomes law, Preston will be deeply involved in a massive government rescue effort that is tricky at best to implement. Anything of that scale will move slowly, and Democrats—like Velázquez—will be itching for someone to blame.

Maybe the SBA won't seem so bad after all.

Department of Housing and Urban Development

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