Is it Time to Pull the Plug on the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission?

Last week, in the middle of former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan’s testimony in front of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC), the lights went out.

According to Greenspan, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were to blame for the housing bubble. The Fed may have noticed, but it couldn’t really do anything about it. "Regulators cannot successfully use the bully pulpit to manage asset prices, and they cannot calibrate regulation and supervision in response to movements in asset prices. Nor can they fully eliminate the possibility of future crises,” said Greenspan.

After that self-serving drivel, no wonder the God’s zapped the electrical system. There was a lot Greenspan could have done to rein in the housing bubble, not the least of which was simply telling people there was a bubble as housing prices began following an unprecedented and unsustainable path.

But electrical snafus are just the beginning of the FCIC's problems. The FCIC is a 10-person panel assembled to report on the meltdown to President Obama later this year. The New York Times reported last week what was becoming increasingly obvious: the commission was in shambles. The commission waited eight months before having its first hearing. A top investigator resigned due to delays in hiring staff, no subpoenas have been issued and partisan infighting means few new documents have been released that would aid reporters in piecing together the crime scene, even if FCIC investigators are not up to the task. Worse, it seems like the majority of staff have been borrowed from the complicit Federal Reserve.

These problems were on full display in last week’s hearings. The three days of hearings were marked by some heat, but little light. On day one, the commission let Greenspan blather on about how these types of crises were unpredictable. While Chairman Angelides tried to ask some common-sense questions, Greenspan is a slippery eel and he slithered out of the room unscathed. An Eliot Spitzer with vast financial services knowledge and prosecutorial experience would have done better with Greenspan.

On day two, Charlie Prinz, former CEO of Citigroup, took center stage apologizing for his transgressions, but telling the FCIC that, like a good captain, he went down with his ship (by not selling his Citi stock). How the FCIC managed to make a hero out of the man who ran Citi into the ground is beyond me.

On day three, Fannie Mae execs took the stand. They were appropriately grilled about their inappropriate lobbying, but as economist Dean Baker points out, were not asked the key question: "As housing experts why did you not warn of the housing bubble and take actions to dampen it?" Baker was one economist who was loudly warning of the housing bubble as early as 2004. But the Fannie Mae execs successfully peddled the narrative that the institution was engulfed in catastrophic and unforeseeable decline in home values.

But the saddest lost opportunity of the week was in the questioning of Robert Rubin. Former Goldman Sachs executive, Clinton Treasury Secretary, and Citi board member, Rubin bears tremendous responsibility for creating the disaster by pursuing an extreme agenda of deregulation in the 1990s, and then standing idly by as the consequences of that agenda unfolded. Rubin should have been pressed by multiple commissioners on the following: Do you regret pushing for the repeal of Glass-Steagall that helped create too-big-to-fail firms and allowed Wall Street gambling to spread to Main Street banks? Do you regret deregulating derivatives and setting these "weapons of mass economic destruction” loose upon the world? Do you regret pushing through deregulatory trade agreements that spread our financial services model and risky financial products around the globe?

Inexplicably, Rubin was not even asked about the prior day’s testimony by Richard Bowen, Citigroup’s former chief of underwriting, who directly accused Rubin and other bank executives of violating their own risk management policies and ignoring warnings as early as 2006 that about 60 percent of mortgages were worthless. A full accounting of Rubin’s role in these events is critical given the strong role he still plays as a behind-the-scenes White House advisor.

Given its lackluster performance to date, some question whether it is time to pull the plug on the FCIC, or at a minimum call for a change in the structure or chairmanship of the commission. Others are still hopeful that the commission can get its act together. "The Commission's fits and mis-starts don't have to be fatal. It is time for the Commission to get serious, and if certain commissioners are obstructing their work, they should be held publicly accountable,” said Tom Matzzie of Project Accountability. An immediate first step would be a prompt and concurrent release of all documents in the commission’s possession, so that the press and the public can aid the institution in its faltering investigations.

Mary Bottari

Mary Bottari is a reporter for the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD). She helped launch CMD's award-winning ALEC Exposed investigation and is a two-time recipient of the Sidney Prize for public interest journalism from the Sidney Hillman Foundation.