Redfin’s Day in Washington

Redfin’s day in Congress was like a lot of days at Redfin: filled with swashbuckling controversy and juicy intrigue, unavoidably goofy and improvisational, tinged with a Quixotic sense of futility.

Mostly it felt like a schoolday field-trip without a chaperone. Going to Congress was fun. The whole place seemed set to a music we couldn’t hear. The halls are filled with handsome young people in impeccable suits, and the clocks are outfitted with lights and alarms to warn of impending votes.
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The staffers often seemed elaborately bored by the droning testimony but eager to pounce. Everywhere, everyone seems to know everything that’s going on, tracking bills coming to vote by BlackBerry, watching hearings by Webcast, whispering in one another’s ear.
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The whispering was constant and congenial, with the ranking liberal Democrat Maxine Waters and the stolidly Republican chairman Bob Ney sharing a joke while the local yokel-dokels and the legal stiffs rattled on about Grand Rapids, Michigan or obscure points of law. I felt bad for them having to listen to this stuff, day after day, and was relieved to see how well they got on, despite all the reports of increasing partisanship.

It was also hard not to feel a little awe. Most public buildings I’ve been in, usually to argue traffic tickets, are a combination of old-train-station grandeur and the run-down, cut-rate decor of a high-school classroom. I was worried the hearings would be all the latter, with card-tables and government-issue plastic chairs, and a gigantic clock on the wall.
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But the hearing rooms are grand, with tiers of committee members arranged in concentric semi-circles above the testimony table. The gallery behind the witnesses was packed to capacity with realtor-pin-wearing supporters and staff attorneys toting binders of committee-member profiles. There were overflow rooms, photographers with gigantic lenses that they still managed to put right in your face, and remote-controlled TV cameras.

Two panels spoke. The first consisted of Department of Justice & FTC anti-trust attorneys and an analyst from the non-partisan General Accounting Office, who were polite but firm in their findings that realtors and listing services violate anti-trust laws designed to protect consumers. The second, which Redfin was on, consisted of six members of the industry, including the President-Elect of the National Association of Realtors.

Each witness read a prepared five-minute statement, getting the gong the second he or she went over (lights on a small display controlled by the chairman and visible only to the speaker turned yellow then red). Surprisingly, many witnesses were cut off with pages of testimony unread. A carbuncular Texas discount broker, talking a mile-a-minute, finished 1:30 early and then looked around for a second as if he couldn’t believe it.
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For our statement, which you can read here, we copied the intro off the script of the Lending Tree lady next to me, because we’d forgotten to include the pro-forma niceties to “Chairman Ney, Ranking Committee-Member Waters” and all the rest.
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While I spoke, I tried to look deeply into the congressmen’s eyes for effect, then lost my place and kept talking anyway. So I have no idea what I really said. After I was done, it seemed like a long way to go for a speech that was already over. Except it was far from over.

Every congressman except the powerful but soon-to-be-retired Congressman Oxley was ferociously pro-realtor. And once Oxley was gone the entire hearing became a bloodsport, with Redfin in its customary position at the center of the fray. All the congressmen directed most of their questions towards us. As each one lit into Redfin, the realtor crowd moaned with pleasure.

The Democrats of all people cited states’ rights in their refusal to act, while the Republicans seemed intent on protecting the realtors rather than free markets. Their opposition was impenetrably uniform but also outlandishly varied: do online brokers discriminate against those who lack Internet access? Since realtors are often divorced women starting second careers, aren’t we hurting those who need jobs the most? If lawyers’ fees have increased recently why shouldn’t realtors’? If your service is so great, why isn’t your business bigger? Since you’re not out of business, how could you complain?
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The Grand Inquisitor was Congressman Artur (yes, that’s how it’s spelled) Davis, a brilliant former prosecutor whom other committee members gave their time to so he could sustain his attack. No one seemed remotely disturbed by the fact that consumers who buy online can be discriminated against without legal recourse, or that MLS rules limit competition.

It was all political theater, as everyone knew what we never figured out: that Congress would leave it to the DoJ to go after the realtors. An FTC lawyer told me before the hearing started that just having companies like Redfin testify was already alarming to the realtor lobby. “They did a big letter campaign,” he said (the committee members often waved letters at us from concerned realtors in their districts).

Everyone was very nice to us afterwards. Chairman Ney came by to ask if we’d ever testified before, and Cindy Chetti, the fantastic staffer who hooked us up in the first place, said that the congressmen were talking among themselves about how fun we were as a witness. A DoJ attorney gave us her card.

This would all be cause for unmitigated celebration if the fellow witnesses hadn’t been so solicitous of us afterwards: “Are you OK? Really? Really? Wow. I mean wow.” Even the intern in the committee office who was watching my luggage looked up from his Webcast when I came in and said, “Oh man.” Only then did it dawn on me we’d gotten into an argument we couldn’t win. The Lending Tree legal team of six lawyers and PR experts felt so bad when they saw I was by myself that they offered a lift to the airport by chartered van.
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We drove past the Washington Monument, encircled by 50 pretty flags, and the Jefferson Memorial, lonely in its perfection, and soon we were enveloped in the dense green of FDR Drive along the upper Potomac. It was very beautiful. But we were all already so immersed in our BlackBerries that we could not see to see.

P.S. One weird, funny note. In mangling the answer to one question, we explained how we came to testify before Congress. “We didn’t make any donations, Democrat or Republican,” I said, “We just read an NYT article and called Clinton to tell him we wanted to come.”

The whole room froze, thinking I was casually referring to President Clinton rather than the urbane, knowing attorney/consigiliere for the subcommittee, Clinton Jones (whose name we found on a Web site and who seemed to find it quaint that I wanted to shake his hand before the hearings began).

Puzzled, oblivious, we all just moved on. Mr. Jones whispered into Chairman Ney’s ear, and both of them had a big laugh…