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Financial-crisis commission's challenge: staying bipartisan

The federal panel probing the origins of the crisis skews Democratic. Leaders Phil Angelides and Bill Thomas are known as aggressive partisans. But the issue is 'bigger than party,' Angelides says.

September 17, 2009|Jim Puzzanghera

WASHINGTON — A special commission to determine the causes of the financial crisis is trying to pattern itself after the bipartisan panel that investigated the 2001 terrorist attacks -- but some Republicans say the deck already is stacked against them.

The 10-person commission meeting for the first time today consists of six people selected by Democrats and four by the GOP, a departure from the even split on the so-called 9/11 Commission.

And it's headed by longtime loyalists from each party, which some worry could lead to partisan disputes as the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission tackles the politically explosive question of what triggered the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression.

Chairman Phil Angelides, a former California state treasurer and the 2006 Democratic nominee for governor, and Vice Chairman Bill Thomas, a former Central Valley congressman and Republican chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, come to their new jobs with backgrounds as aggressive partisans. That is starkly different from the moderate co-chairmen of the 9/11 Commission, Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton.

"They're both hard-line partisans, but they're both really, really smart partisans," said Dan Schnur, director of USC's Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics. "This presents an opportunity for both of them to establish a legacy at an entirely different level altogether."

Given the historic scale of the financial crisis and the high-profile hearings the commission will hold, with testimony likely from top government officials and chief executives of failed and bailed-out companies, Angelides and Thomas stand to become better known for their involvement in the commission than anything else they've done, Schnur said.

In their first joint interview, Angelides and Thomas told The Times they planned to seize that opportunity and avoid partisan squabbles.

"People say, 'Well my gosh, there are six Democrats, four Republicans. . . .' Those are not limitations unless you make them limitations," Thomas said, noting that the task is "really, really important" and several of the appointees don't have partisan backgrounds.

"This has been a financial cataclysm of national import," Angelides said. "It's bigger than party."

As if to underscore their effort to stay a common course, both men frequently deferred to each other during the meeting. That was unusual for two politicians not known for bipartisan outreach.

Angelides, a former chairman of the California Democratic Party, is a sharp-elbowed campaigner whose aides rifled Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's website for embarrassing audio recordings and leaked them to The Times during the 2006 campaign. Thomas, a staunch conservative, often raised ire across the aisle with condescending put-downs while in Congress, and once called Capitol police to evict Democrats from his committee library during a dispute.

The commission, created by Congress this year, is charged with examining private- and public-sector causes of the economic disaster, as well as the reasons for the problems of every major financial institution that failed or was saved by a government bailout.

Any possible criminal acts it finds along the way must be referred to the authorities. It should have plenty of time: The final report is due Dec. 15, 2010.

A similar effort, known as the Pecora Commission, did the same thing after the Great Depression, and that investigation led to major financial reforms.

Republicans and Democrats have tangled for a year now over the chief cause of last fall's financial meltdown. Republicans often point to the push to extend homeownership to low-income communities by mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which they say Democrats encouraged and refused to check. Democrats say it was lax financial oversight by the Republican Bush administration and a deregulation-minded, Republican-led Congress, which failed to rein in irresponsible behavior on Wall Street.

Angelides and Thomas said they would try to stick to the facts and let others draw the conclusions.

"In a sense, one year ago this week, there was an implosion on Wall Street, but the fuses were lit. And I think we're going to try to agree on what fuses we're going to follow," Angelides said. "I think if we can remember the big picture and then stay to the facts, we've got a good shot here. But we do operate in a macro-political environment. I think we're both aware of this."

Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) said he had "very high hopes and very low expectations" for the commission, given that Democratic appointees outnumber Republicans.

"Clearly we're disappointed it's rigged in favor of the Democrats," he said.

Based on his experience as co-chairman of the 9/11 Commission, Hamilton said Angelides and Thomas held the key to the commission's effectiveness.

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