WASHINGTON — The bipartisan Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission was just hours old on Wednesday before divisions surfaced among its members.
In one corner, more conservative members appointed by Republican lawmakers argued Congress should wait for the panel's report — due in December 2010 — before moving ahead with legislation that would revamp financial regulation.
But Phil Angelides, the former California state treasurer whom Democrats tapped to chair the 10-member commission, said lawmakers should not sideline regulatory reform.
"We can work in parallel," he said in an interview. "I don't think it serves the nation's interest to tell everyone to hold up and do nothing. Congress and the administration can move forward on the facts as we know them today."
At the first meeting, Angelides will no doubt get an earful from Peter Wallison, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, one of four commissioners named by the GOP.
"The most important thing is for us to set out what happened and why it happened so that Congress can appropriately legislate," Wallison said in a separate interview. "What I would be concerned about was if Congress attempts to legislate now before the facts are known. … As much as Congress has now asked us to try to tell them and the country about what actually happened here and why we fell into this terrible crisis, I think they ought to wait to proceed."
Congress mandated the commission in the mortgage fraud law enacted in May. It is modeled on the bipartisan commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and is intended to be a thorough study of the underpinnings of the financial crisis.
But observers said this panel may be more partisan than the 9/11 commission.
"It's going to be real hard for this commission to develop any kind of consensus, and so I can imagine there ends up being a majority and a minority report with a bunch of dissents," said Lawrence White, a finance professor at New York University's Stern School of Business.
During the interview, Angelides frequently noted the bipartisan nature of the committee and brushed off such concerns.
"We will have different viewpoints, but the fact is we have a very critical agenda here which is nonpartisan," he said.
Robert Litan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, was a member of the commission that reviewed the causes of the savings and loan crisis. He said he does not expect this commission to find consensus.
"I doubt you'll see a unanimous report in this environment," Litan said. "You'll probably get some partial dissent, but if they're lucky, they'll get agreement on the basic thrust of what happened."
The other Democrat appointees include Brooksley Born, the former Commodities Futures Trading Commission chairman who raised early alarms about the risk surrounding derivatives; Bob Graham, the former Florida senator; Byron Georgiou, a blogger on financial regulation who sits on the advisory board of Harvard Law School's Program on Corporate Governance; Heather Murren, a former Merrill Lynch & Co. executive; and John Thompson, the chairman of Symantec Corp., a security software company.
Former California Rep. Bill Thomas will lead Republicans as the commission's vice chairman. Beyond Wallison, other GOP appointees include Douglas Holtz-Eakin, the leading economic adviser to Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign, and Keith Hennessey, who worked on the National Economic Council during the Bush administration.
The commission is required to study fraud in the financial system, monetary policy, accounting rules, capital requirements, securitization, compensation and the financial regulatory structure.
Angelides would not say which issues the commission would tackle first, noting his priority is assembling a staff.
Angelides said he does not come to the commission with any predispositions — "We are fact finders," he said — and industry observers are taking him at his word.
"It's not going to be an investigation that just slams the financial services and banking industry," said Brian Gardner, an analyst at KBW Inc. "I think it could look in a number of ways to consumer behavior and ways that consumers tried to game the system. It could produce some surprising results."
Kip Weissman, a partner at Luse Gorman, said the commission should not go after banks.
"Going back and finding new villains could impair the fragile confidence that's been restored," he said. "What good are you going to accomplish if … the SEC starts to restore its luster and this report slams them?"
The committee's budget has not been specified yet and Angelides has yet to choose a staff director for the panel. The panel's commissioners are paid a daily equivalent of a $153,000 salary for each day that they work.
The panel will have plenty of firepower. For one, it can convene hearings that would look into the industry's practices before and during the crisis. Perhaps more important, it can subpoena financial institutions and regulators to turn over materials and appear before the panel.
"This is going to be a blame-game exercise, not a policy one," said Karen Shaw Petrou, the managing director of Federal Financial Analytics Inc. "There are some bodies buried here that could well be exhumed. I think that would be constructive, even though it might be unpleasant."
Angelides and Thomas both must approve a subpoena, but the power of such an order has already been displayed by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in its investigation of Bank of America Corp.'s bid for Merrill Lynch. The Federal Reserve Board, in particular, has come away with a black eye after the committee released e-mails suggesting it kept other regulators in the dark about problems with the merger.
Gardner said he expects the commission to be careful.
"I suspect that subpoena power will be used guardedly," Gardner said.
"When you start subpoenaing institutions like the Fed, I think you have to think very long and hard about that."
Wayne Abernathy, the American Bankers Association's executive director of financial institutions policy, was similarly cautious.
"In order to do their job well, they'll want to get some of this confidential information, and I think they'll have to be very careful with what they do with it," he said.