WASHINGTON — The findings of a committee formed to probe the causes of the financial crisis could gain more importance as the debate over regulatory reform stalls on Capitol Hill.
Lawmakers wary of quickly enacting reform could point to the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, which holds its first public meeting today, and argue that Congress should await the panel's December 2010 final report before acting. As the reform effort loses momentum, observers said such a scenario is growing more likely.
"Because the financial overhaul package has slowed down, that opens the door more to the commission having an impact," said Robert Litan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who sat on a commission that reviewed the causes of the savings and loan crisis. "Congress can use it to slow-motion the stuff in Obama's plan. … The commission, when the idea for it was first floated, looked like it was going to be an afterthought but today potentially looks more relevant."
Timing has become an increasingly important factor in the push for a financial overhaul. President Obama went to Wall Street this week to make the case for speedy reforms, but his proposals are being overshadowed by the health-care debate and threatened by a dwindling legislative calendar.
One of the more conservative members of the commission, American Enterprise Institute Fellow Peter Wallison, welcomed a potential slowdown. "The commission is a lot more relevant now, and that's very, very good news," he said in an interview. "A diagnosis should precede prescription, and Congress should be waiting for this commission to report before it legislates. Why they thought they could legislate before hearing the commission that they appointed is a question."
Congress mandated the commission in the mortgage fraud law enacted in May, which was modeled on the bipartisan commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The commission is intended to do a thorough study of the underpinnings of the financial crisis.
Democratic leaders picked Phil Angelides, the former California state treasurer, to be commission chairman. Other Democratic appointees include Brooksley Born, the former Commodity Futures Trading Commission chairman; Bob Graham, the former Florida senator; Byron Georgiou, a financial blogger who is 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 software security firm Symantec Corp.
Former California Rep. Bill Thomas is to lead the Republicans as the commission's vice chairman. Beyond Wallison, the GOP appointed 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, to sit on the panel.
Notably absent from the commission membership is anyone who has worked inside a banking agency. "They don't want the regulators' perspective," said Kevin Jacques, the chairman of the finance department at Baldwin-Wallace College. "Congress wants to make sure that when the commission comes back and says, 'here's what we found,' it's not going to be from a commission worried about regulatory turf."
Many observers are looking to Angelides, the commission's chairman, as a possible guide to the panel's conclusions. Many cited his past work as California's state treasurer, a post he held for eight years. "He was way ahead of the curve in terms of identifying some of these practices that I believe led to our crisis," said California State Assemblyman Ted Lieu, a Democrat.
Lieu also credited Angelides with recognizing California's looming budget deficit and warning the state's voters of its dangers in his 2006 bid for governor.
But a source who served with him on a pension fund board — Angelides sat on the boards of both Calpers and the California State Teachers' Retirement System — said his management style too often crossed over into social activism. "He had become very socially active on a corporate level," the source said. "His way of operating struck me kind of funny from the standpoint that he would not support buying issues in companies that didn't have enough transparency."
The source also questioned Angelides' ability to preside over a group of people holding very different opinions, suggesting he might let his own views dominate.
"Angelides had significant control over the group" as a pension fund board member, the source said. "He's a forceful leader."
Joining Angelides on the commission as executive director is Thomas Greene, who is California's special assistant attorney general. Observers said having a prosecutor on the commission could help. "Prosecutors have had to put together cases, do witness interviews — it's good training," said Ron Glancz, a partner at Venable LLC.
Still, others questioned whether Greene — whose biggest case may have been the antitrust suit against Microsoft Corp. — will be well versed in the minutiae of the financial engineering that contributed to the crisis.
"You would like to have somebody that is comfortable with finance, financial concepts and understands the basic processes," said Lawrence White, a professor at New York University's Stern School of Business. "Antitrust is good stuff, but I don't think that gives you a leg up in finance."
Ultimately, the success of the commission could hinge on how well its members, who hail from diverse spots along the political spectrum, get along. Wallison said he expects panel members to be collegial — initially.
"Everyone is going to be very accommodating to everyone else's views at the beginning," he said. "But you eventually come to a point where there are serious differences, and the real question is whether people will maintain their equanimity in those situations."