The FCIC's Real Work

| Wed Jan. 13, 2010 1:13 PM EST

Four top bank CEOs—Bank of America's Brian Moynihan, Morgan Stanley's John Mack, JPMorgan's Jamie Dimon, and Goldman Sachs' Lloyd Blankfein—are on Capitol Hill today to face the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, which is charged with putting together a 9-11 Commission-style report on the causes of the financial crisis. The CEOs are still taking questions, but they haven't really been telling the commission anything its members didn't already know.

That's not really a surprise. The FCIC's ten members have asked a lot of good questions—and Bill Thomas, the commission's vice-chairman, demanded the CEOs submit answers to New York Times reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin's hard-hitting queries. But bank CEOs aren't stupid, and they have great lawyers. They're very unlikely to say anything that could hurt them or their companies. So it's important that people recognize that this part of the commission's work is really just political theater. Unless someone makes a big mistake, we're not going to learn anything new or surprising just because Lloyd Blankfein made it to Capitol Hill on time.

While ruining Blankfein's day is the most public part of the FCIC's job, the most important part of its mission is the grunt work of investigating. The biggest revelations always come when investigators obtain documents that illuminate truths interested parties wouldn't reveal of their own volition. (Whistleblower testimony is good, too, but it's not as solid as actual records.) The FCIC has an $8 million budget and a lot of power—it can subpoena witnesses and documents and grant whistleblower protection to encourage people to come forward with information. It's all well and good to ask these guys questions. But it's other things—like hunting down key documents (the AIG emails would be a good start) and finding witnesses who aren't, like the CEOs, paid to protect their institutions—that comprise the commission's real work. Its success will be determined by how well it's able to do those things—not by how roughly it can question Jamie Dimon.

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