[Guest post by Noam Scheiber:]
The Times' Sewell Chan and Eric Dash have a great little piece about Bill Thomas, the volatile former Republican chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, now vice chairman the the congressionally-chartered Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC). In a nutshell, Thomas is--how to put it?--a preening, self-righteous bully* who seems more interested in scoring rhetorical points than figuring out what caused the crisis. Chan and Dash have a couple of entertaining examples, but I don't think they quite do justice to the full breadth of Thomas's mania.
My own favorite moment from yesterday's testimony featuring former Treasury Secretary Bob Rubin and his one-time Citigroup colleague, former CEO Chuck Prince, involved something that had absolutely nothing--zero--to do with the financial crisis, but which Thomas nonetheless spent more time on than anything else in his questioning of Rubin. Here's the soliloquy from my contemporaneous notes (which are about 95 percent accurate--I'm sure I've left out a word here and there). For the full exchange--and, more importantly, to really appreciate the Thomas gestalt--see this C-SPAN video, from about 52:50 until about 58:00. Here goes:
What I want to focus on is that for the first time in these hearings someone has introduced, of their own volition in the comments they offered to the commision, some partisan comments. In the fourth paragraph you state, "It's important to remember our national economic policies enormously affect all of us. For example, President Clinton undetook deficit reduction and made critical public investments, and those policies contributed to the longest economic expansion in American history... Simply put, policy matters."
Well, so does the truth. You came in at the beginning of the Clinton administration, and actually before the president was sworn in--in December of '92. The president was sworn in in Januray of '93. He became president with a Democratic Congress and a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. The House of Representatives is that branch of the legislature, the national legislature, which in Article I, Section 8 of the constitution has sole responsibility for the generation of revenue legislation. It is the place that controls the nation's purse strings. Just before you were sworn in as Secretary of the Treasury, on Jan 11, 1995, for your three years experience as Treasurer [sic], I was sworn in on January 3 for the ninth time in the House of Representatives, and for the first time--in four decades--as part of a Republican majority ... So I guess I'm a little personally concerned that if anybody looks at the election of November of 1944 [note: he later corrected this to 1994], it was over the tax and spend policies of the Democratic administration, and the Democratic majoriy, principally those who controlled the purse strings in the House of Representatives. And the American voters in that election just prior to your becoming treasurer [sic] rejected those policies, voted out as a majority those members of the Democratic Party. ... If there was deficit reduction as a policy and critical public investments, in six of the eight years of the Clinton administratoin, three-quarters of the administration's policymaking, it was with a Republican majority in the House of Representatives that controls the purse strings. And you know the punch line: I was on the committee that controls the purse strings. And so I guess I'm a little concerned that the continued representation of what I would call a half-truth, doesn't serve our needs today ... So if you'd--just as you were writing there, uncharacteristically, given a litte bit of credit to the fact that just prior to your [swearing] in, you knew you were going to have to work with the House of Representatives controlled by another party, which I think ultimately in the American political tradition of accommodation and compromsie, moved some pretty good policy. And, yes, the president signed it. But he would have had nothing to sign if it hadn't been advanced by Congress with the House of Representatives controlling the purse strings run by a Republican majority.
Wow. I mean, just, wow. Did I mention that the commission's mandate is to get to the bottom of the recent financial crisis? I'd adjudicate the factual merits of this claim (which are meager--the GOP unanimously opposed Bill Clinton's fiscal package in 1993, which laid much of the groundwork for the deficit reduction of the '90s), but Rubin tells you most of what you need to know in his response. And, frankly, this isn't about a historical disagreement so much as one of the most breathtaking spectacles I've ever observed in a congressional committee room.
Also, this is really apropos of nothing, but am I the only one who thinks Bill Thomas looks like a guy doing an impression of the late Phil Hartman doing an impression of Bill Thomas?
*Don't get me wrong. Some of the witnesses who appear before the FCIC could stand a little bullying. But the manner in which Thomas does it strikes me as pretty counterproductive. I'm not a Rubin-hater in any case, but I've never felt more sympathetic to him than at that moment, and I doubt I was the only one.