Sketch: Lieberman on watchdog hunt

The Senate hearing was titled, “Where Were the Watchdogs?” But anyone in the room might have wondered: “Where are the senators?”

For at least half an hour at Wednesday’s hearing of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Chairman Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) sat alone, flanked by 16 empty black chairs, as he listened to three experts wax eloquent on ways to create something called a systemic risk regulator. Put another way, they were there to tell the Senate how to avoid another financial disaster like the one we’re in.

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Not that there was much of an audience in the high-ceilinged room tucked away on the third floor of the Dirksen Senate Office Building to ponder where their senators had gone.

If it weren’t for a continuing rotation of parka-toting high school students from Close Up Academy marching in and out every 15 minutes, there would have been about 10 people in the seats.

Those 10 hunched over in the back appeared to be junior Senate staffers taking notes for their bosses (perhaps the panel-member senators who weren’t there). The paucity of pinstripes (or even suit jackets) hinted that none were lobbyists. Wall Street wasn’t bothering to show up, either.

Of course, many hearings are poorly attended and end up with one lawmaker holding a gavel. Then again, those hearings generally don’t involve the global financial meltdown that is on the front page of every (surviving) newspaper every day and provides endless fodder for cable news.

But it couldn’t have helped attendance for Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to be explaining the president’s budget in a hearing room one floor down. Or that three committee members attended the government contracting announcement at the White House.

Or that Lieberman won’t be writing the overhaul of the regulatory system. He’ll be making “recommendations” to Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.).

Lieberman’s friend, political ally and ranking member, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) bravely held on, reading her opening statement and listening to the first witness before declaring a conflict and bidding farewell.

After that, Lieberman had Robert Litan of the Kauffman Foundation, Damon Silvers, a member of the TARP Congressional Oversight Panel, and financial manager Robert Pozen all to himself.

All to himself for what amounted to a very heady bull session about how to fix the world. Most bull sessions, though, don’t include words like “macro-prudential” or “systematic important financial institutions,” which shortens to “SIFI” (pronunciation: “Sci-Fi”; translation: “too big to fail”).

{mospagebreak}Litan, who noted he spends most of his time among real people in Kansas City, tried to cut through the jargon with some well-worn terminology.

He cautioned against plans that involve multiple agencies by warning about “too many cooks in the kitchen,” which he said violates “the ‘buck stops here’ principle.” Bringing sports into the mix, he explained one concept was to allow the Fed to serve as a “free safety.”

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Lieberman listened by himself until about 50 minutes into the hearing, when Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), a farmer, showed up. It wasn’t until an hour and five minutes in that a banker arrived — Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.).

Burris, who has called himself “an old-fashioned banker” who “sold money for a living,” served as vice president of the Continental Illinois National Bank from 1964 to 1973.

Like a lot of banks, Burris is in debt as he grapples with mounting legal fees.

(On a side note, Continental was the original “too big to fail” bank. It collapsed in 1984, and until the feds seized Washington Mutual in 2008, was the largest failure in bank history.)

Burris told the witnesses that he had read the written version of the testimony he missed. So he wasted no time getting down to brass tacks. Even though Burris has dodged questions in recent days about his ethics controversies, that didn’t stop him from asking a question of his own.

“Where did we lose control of the system?” Burris demanded.

Silvers, in the hot seat, answered, “There are as many answers as there are hours in the day,” suggesting that there are precisely 24.

Burris didn’t get a second question in. Just as his turn came up to resume his interrogation, he left the room. He’d been there 32 minutes.

Still, that was enough to earn him a handshake from the chairman on the way out.

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