You have to feel bad for Alphonso Jackson, the man supposedly in charge of U.S. housing and urban development programs.

At a White House event to mark African-American history month, President George W. Bush introduced him as the secretary of Health and Human Services.

Bush corrected his mistake, quickly joking that Jackson was “constantly trying to promote himself.” In the mistake and in the correction, Bush made it clear that Jackson’s job, and his whole department, don’t matter much.

It’s not surprising. Bush has never had a housing or urban development policy, and now it’s quite clear: He never will. His only housing policy proposal, a single-family housing tax credit, was never actively promoted and died a quiet death, disappearing from Bush’s proposed fiscal year 2007 budget.

Poor Alphonso Jackson. He likes to refer to himself as a friend of the president’s from Texas. But it’s painfully obvious he doesn’t have the slightest shred of influence. Think about the federal budget that just went to Congress. For just one item among many, it jacks up the mortgage insurance premium on most Federal Housing Administration mortgages by almost 80%.

Then there was the very poorly justified Bush proposal to fold Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) into a super block grant under the Department of Commerce about a year ago. Poor Jackson had to act like he was happy that Bush wanted to take away one of the biggest Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) programs. The CDBG program is again threatened. The 2007 budget request cuts CDBG funding by about $1 billion.

Worst of all is Jackson’s glaring failure to exert influence over federal efforts to provide housing for the families displaced by Hurricane Katrina. While the Federal Emergency Management Agency let more than 10,000 trailers rot in a field in Arkansas and even more decay in Louisiana and Mississippi, Jackson was powerless to convince Bush to work through existing HUD programs to house people in existing vacant apartments. Jackson has privately admitted he can do very little to exert HUD’s control over the long-term delivery of housing for hurricane victims.

Good, loyal Jackson is still doing his PR duty, trying to present Bush’s budget as somehow good for housing. But he may have misstepped when he said the latest budget puts a premium on demonstrating results. Everyone knows that HUD is incapable of getting results efficiently.

People have talked in the past about whether HUD can be reformed. Now, many people who deal with the bureaucracy are ready to concede that it cannot be.

There are many reasons for this, but here’s one of the most compelling: As bad as the personnel situation at HUD is now, it is going to get worse. Much worse.

The only thing that keeps the department functioning at all is a thin layer of experienced civil servants who can talk sense to the political appointees, to some degree, in some cases.

But those people are counting the days until retirement. In five years, they will be gone, and guess what, folks? There are very few middle managers who are qualified to replace them.

So the question now has become, what is the future of HUD? Can HUD’s assets and powers be transferred to the states or to a quasi-governmental authority like Ginnie Mae? It’s a very important question, which we will explore in depth in future issues.

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