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Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission Mulls Its Own Role in Regulatory Reform

The 10 members of the panel named by Congress to investigate the causes of last year’s economic implosion appear to be wrestling with their role in this year’s push for financial industry regulatory reform, judging from their statements at today’s first hearing.

Brooksley Born, who fought unsuccessfully to regulate derivatives during her years at the helm of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), singled out “the failure of government to oversee the financial markets” as a central cause of the meltdown that began last year. “Experience has now clearly shown that financial markets cannot self-regulate,” Born said, urging her colleagues on the panel to “identify and examine regulatory gaps and failures so that they may be eliminated.”

But while Born urged Congress and the Obama administration to press ahead with strong new rules of the road for Wall Street, fellow commissioner Keith Hennessey declared that reform legislation has a slim chance of passing this year.

Still, Hennessey added, the panel’s deadline of December 2010 to release its final report risks making its conclusions irrelevant.

“We cannot predict when Congress will act, but we’ve been given a job to do and part of that job is to be as useful to lawmakers as possible,” said Phil Angelides, the panel’s Democratic-appointed chairman. Members of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, as the panel is formally known, will “structure our work with knowledge of the congressional calendar,” Angelides added.

Lawmakers originally hoped that the House would act on regulatory reform before the fall, but the House Financial Services Committee postponed its vote on the White House’s proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency, likely until next month. The decision of Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) to retain his gavel has been seen as a boost for financial reform’s prospects in the upper chamber, but FCIC members stressed the importance of keeping their work connected to — and independent from — the action on Capitol Hill.

“There’s no question that this commission had a political birth,” quipped former House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), now the FCIC vice chairman. But, he noted, one can stay defined by one’s birth or “get on with your life.”

Speaking to reporters after the FCIC’s first meeting, Thomas offered his own prediction that Congress would ultimately come down harder on a financial industry that is still weighing how much systemic risk to embrace. “It isn’t whether there will be regulation or not,” Thomas said. “It’s whether it’ll be regulation for the sake of regulation.”

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