At the Woodshed, Giving the What For Then the Finger Wag

House members Gary L. Ackerman (D-N.Y.), Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Michael Capuano (D-Mass.) let loose on bankers who appeared at the House Financial Services Committee.
House members Gary L. Ackerman (D-N.Y.), Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Michael Capuano (D-Mass.) let loose on bankers who appeared at the House Financial Services Committee. (By Brendan Hoffman -- Bloomberg News)
  Enlarge Photo    
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 12, 2009; Page D03

The economic crisis has excited the Inner Curmudgeon in a number of lawmakers. Just listen to Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.), Rep. Gary L. Ackerman (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.).

Over the past several weeks, representatives of a number of groups involved in the crisis have been hauled before House and Senate panels for their whipping, taking part in what -- up until now -- has been a great Washington kabuki.

This time, though, it's different. The federal government has invested billions of dollars in troubled banks, insurance giants and the like, some of which have responded by taking luxe vacations and paying fat bonuses. As such, some lawmakers are venting with the righteous anger of a preferred shareholder of a foundering company. Which they are.

Capuano raged at eight of the nation's biggest bankers testifying before the House Financial Services Committee yesterday without even bothering to ask a question -- which he acknowledged -- and somehow managed to invoke Girl Scouts and Mother Teresa.

The fifth-term congressman and former small-city mayor represents most of Boston. He backs aid to Africa and co-founded the congressional caucus on Sudan.

Ackerman, a rising star of Capitol Hill crabdom, lectured the bankers like they were recalcitrant children.

"We listen to you and we hear words, words, words and no answer," Ackerman said. "We listen to the group of you giving us very calm assurances that everything is okay, under control and there are no problems, that you're lending out all of this money and that everything is hunky-dory."

Ackerman made his bones as a highly quotable grump during the November hearing on Detroit's Big Three automakers, when it was revealed that the chiefs of GM, Ford and Chrysler had each taken private jets to Washington to ask Congress for bailout money.

"It's almost like seeing a guy show up at the soup kitchen in high hat and tuxedo," Ackerman said at the time.

Last week, Ackerman condemned a panel of SEC lawyers as "useless" and "worthless" for failing to catch self-confessed $50 billion Ponzi grifter Bernie Madoff.

Ackerman, a 14-term congressman, represents parts of Queens and Nassau County on Long Island. His claim to fame is blazing the trail for what would become the Federal Family Leave Act, after he was denied unpaid paternity leave from his high school teaching job in 1969. In the House, he was a sponsor of legislation imposing firewalls in auditing firms after the Enron and WorldCom scandals.

Yesterday, Waters eyeballed the executives assembled before her -- the heads of J.P. Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs and five other powerhouses. A longtime civil rights advocate who has fought what she calls predatory lending practices, redlining and discriminatory hiring for years, Waters is a 10-term congresswoman who represents South Central Los Angeles. She rose from factory work to power in the California State Assembly and national Democratic politics.

"To the captains of the universe sitting here before all of us, all of my political life I have been in disagreement with the banking industry," Waters said, dripping sarcasm from every syllable of "captains" and "universe."

Bank of America chief executive Kenneth Lewis attempted a little joke in response, saying, "I feel like a corporal of the universe." Stony silence from the seething Waters.

Lesson to future Hill witnesses: Don't taunt a grouch. Especially one with power.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company