08/15/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Pelosi's Toothless Watchdogs

Roosevelt Institute Braintruster Joe Conason warns that Congressional Democrats must not abandon their heritage and lose an historic opportunity to expose the facts of the financial crisis. This article was originally published on

Very soon, Congressional leaders are expected to announce the creation of a new commission to investigate the real causes of America's crippling financial disaster. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has reportedly told Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner that this investigative panel will be modeled on the legendary "Pecora Commission," which held a series of hearings on Capitol Hill in 1933 that arraigned the nation's biggest bankers and stock swindlers before an angry and suffering people. Named for Ferdinand Pecora, the cigar-chomping New York prosecutor who oversaw the proceedings, those confrontations mobilized public support for the financial reforms of the New Deal -- which curbed the excesses of Wall Street's overclass until they were overturned a decade ago.

But unless the Speaker and her colleagues summon much greater courage than they have displayed to date, any comparisons to the Pecora investigation will only highlight the failure of the Democrats to live up to their heritage. The way to begin to understand that incipient disappointment is with a short history lesson, and the way to start that lesson is to note that the Pecora "commission" was not really a commission at all, in the sense that we have come to understand that term -- meaning an excuse for politicians to avoid their responsibilities by palming them off on a group of unelected appointees.

No, the Pecora commission was nothing like that. The so-called commission was in fact the Senate Banking and Currency Committee itself, which under Republican leadership had undertaken a desultory investigation of the 1929 Crash and the onset of the Great Depression that had dragged on for a year or so without much progress. That changed with the election of 1932, which sent Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the White House and gave control of the United States Senate, including the Banking Committee, to the Democrats. In January 1933, Pecora had been appointed to write up the weak and incomplete findings of his three predecessors -- but the Senate Democrats, with the encouragement of the new president, encouraged him to continue and extend the committee's investigation.


This piece was originally published on and also on New Deal 2.0
You can read the rest of Roosevelt Braintruster Joe Conason's piece at New Deal 2.0.