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To keep legislators from getting too comfortable with the status quo, House conservatives have tried a new tack: passing legislation that would force the government to acknowledge its ownership of Fannie and Freddie and include all of their potential liabilities — as well as their current profits — in the federal budget. Under legislation passed by the House this month, the $81 billion in profits Fannie and Freddie are expected to transfer to the Treasury this year to pay down the deficit, for example, would be cut to about $2 billion to reflect future loan losses sustained by the enterprises in times of recession and crisis.

The Treasury’s practice of reporting only Fannie and Freddie’s profits makes them “appear to be a boon for taxpayers because they reduce the reported federal deficit,” while it provides a “free lunch” for legislators trying to avoid serious spending cuts, said Romina Boccia, a budget analyst at The Heritage Foundation.

“This fiscal illusion encourages higher federal spending today while putting taxpayers on the hook for future bailouts” and making it harder to pass legislation to phase out the enterprises, she said.

The accounting change appeals to “good government” advocates who demand an honest accounting of government programs. By exposing the potentially huge hidden liabilities that come with Fannie and Freddie, the change is an “important first step” toward forcing Congress to deal with the unfinished business of housing finance reform, Ms. Boccia said.