Investigation Of Financial Crisis Idea Gaining Steam

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Earlier this year, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi suggested the creation of an internal “Pecora-like” congressional committee to investigate the causes of the financial crisis, and, since then, we’ve been following the idea as it moves closer to fruition.

In the last couple weeks, there have been some significant developments on that front. On the House side, influential Rep. John Dingell (D-MI) introduced a stand-alone resolution that mirrors Pelosi’s preference. “This [House] select committee,” Dingell said, would “be comprised of members appointed from the Committees on Financial Services, Agriculture, Energy and Commerce, and Oversight and Government Reform…modeled on the Pecora Commission that held hearings in 1932 and 1933 to investigate the roots of the Great Depression.”

The Pecora investigations were conducted in the Senate Banking Committee, but you get the idea. Dingell hasn’t been in close conversation with leadership about his particular plan, but he did send Pelosi a letter asking for her support. I asked Dingell spokesman Adam Benson why Dingell prefers this configuration as oppose to, for instance, an independent outside commission. He said, “The committees of jurisdiction should be involved because they’ll be the ones to write any legislation that results from the investigation.”

Senators Byron Dorgan (D-ND) and John McCain (R-AZ) feel much the same way. They introduced a measure that would create a select committee in the Senate with the same charge. “While I also support an outside commission, and have previously introduced legislation to establish such a commission,” Dorgan said, “I believe the Senate has an important oversight responsibility that cannot be delegated. That’s why we need a select Senate committee to investigate this financial crisis and make sure it never happens again.”

That measure–an amendment to the Fraud Enforcement Recovery Act (FERA)–got the go ahead earlier this week when the bill overwhelmingly passed the Senate.

But another, similar FERA amendment would create an external commission, containing members appointed by both House and Senate leaders, and Hill sources suggest that’s where the action is.The amendment was sponsored by Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA) and Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND). It provides that the Speaker and the Senate Majority Leader get to pick two commission members a piece. Beyond that, the Senate and House Minority Leaders, along with the chairmen and ranking members of the Senate Banking Committee and the House Financial Services Committee, each get to pick one member, for a total of 10, six appointed by Democrats. Just like an internal committee, the commission will have subpoena power.

(For what it’s worth, though Pelosi’s preference is for an internal investigation, her influential Financial Service Committee chairman, Barney Frank, supports something along the line of the Isakson-Conrad plan. So does Senate Banking Committee chair Chris Dodd)

Isakson’s spokeswoman says that, in the senator’s eyes, the commission should exist outside of Congress in order to avoid the conflict of interest inherent when members investigate their own actions. For instance, he, along with many of his still-serving colleagues, voted for Clinton-era legislation that eliminated the firewall between commercial and investment banks. He now seemingly regrets his vote, but thinks the issue should be investigated anyhow, and worries members would approach that process with blinkers on.

A number of critics believe that any politically devised plan to investigate the crisis will result in a sort of sham trial–whether because members are investigating themselves, or appointing people who will come to the “right” conclusions. But the House will be taking up their version of FERA next week, and, unless the commission gets stripped out of the bill in conference (and the Dorgan-McCain and Dingell measures meet similar fates) an investigation of some sort will happen. And when it does, these criticisms and members of Congress alike will be put to the test.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at brian@talkingpointsmemo.com
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