Don’t let my politeness fool you,” says Elizabeth Warren. The Harvard Law professor and head of the congressional panel monitoring the bank bailout had just finished a hearing in New York City and was nibbling at a dish of pasta with zucchini. “I can’t think of anyone I’m afraid of,” she adds. “Certainly not someone who may have had a hand in bringing this country to the brink of disaster.”
Warren, 59, is exceedingly polite. She has strong opinions, but she often expresses them in a whisper-soft voice. She tends to say “Does that make sense” in her Oklahoma drawl right after she finishes answering a question. During the hearing, which was focused on the federal bailout program’s effect on corporate and commercial real estate lending, Warren gingerly tapped her gavel from the dais. “The hearing of the Congressional Oversight Panel will now come to order,” she said a bit hesitantly. As part of her new job, this well-mannered career academic has to bully some of the world’s most powerful men. Shortly after Congress passed the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act last October, Warren was appointed by Senate Democrats to do one of the most difficult, or perhaps impossible, jobs in Washington: chairing a bipartisan panel tasked with scrutinizing how the Treasury Department first George W. Bush’s, now Barack Obama’s is spending the $700 billion in federal money intended in large part to shore up failing banks. The role has Warren monitoring the decisions of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and the big-bank CEOs who have taken taxpayer money to clean up companies’ balance sheets. If Warren’s journey from Harvard to the center of the emergency financial-rescue effort were a movie, it could be called Out of the Library and into the Snake Pit. Her appointment raises a number of questions, including whether someone like Warren can compel staffers at the Treasury Department to hand over sensitive data the crux of her job. The bonus scandal at AIG, the former insurance giant that is now a ward of the Federal Government, was a strong indication that some of those responsible for dispensing funds from the Troubled Asset Relief Program lost track of the cash. Which raises a more philosophical point: Is it even possible to know where the money is going And if so, is Warren, a Washington outsider who’s still feeling her away around a strange new landscape, the right person to figure it out Follow the MoneyIf the question hinges on whether Warren can say exactly how TARP money has been spent so far, then the answer is probably no but then that may be an unrealistic goal. The eight monthly reports released by the oversight panel to date spend almost more time talking about what isn’t known than about what is. They repeatedly assert that the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve should be more forthcoming. The panel has been plagued by controversy, which has also hampered its effectiveness. Its two Republican members complain that the panel has drifted away from its core mission under Warren’s leadership and spends too much time editorializing on the plight of middle-class families, the focus of Warren’s academic research. Her relationship with Treasury has been rocky. She got into a low-level war with former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and his staff over their perceived unwillingness to share information, and she had a shaky start with Geithner, who didn’t seem to take the panel seriously at first. In an “Additional View” filed with the panel’s June report, Republican panel member Jeb Hensarling wrote, “By choosing to focus much of its work on issues not central to our mandate the panel has missed critical opportunities to provide effective oversight.” Watch TIME’s video of Peter Schiff trash-talking the markets.
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