House Democratic leaders, responding to the growing national uproar over the collapse of the savings and loan industry, yesterday urged creation of a national commission to probe the thrift crisis and recommend ways to improve regulation of financial industries.
The proposed 12-member commission is part of a package of savings and loan related measures that will be included in an omnibus crime bill that House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) said would go before the full House next week.
In addition to setting up the bipartisan commission, the legislation would beef up funding for criminal prosecutions of savings and loan fraud, stiffen criminal penalties for concealing an S&L's assets and make it easier for federal authorities to use civil proceedings to recover the assets of S&L operators.
"This package tells those who would hide their ill-gotten gains that the federal government will now have the power to ensure that the public's funds are protected before theirs," said Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), the principal sponsor of the legislation.
"We will enact all the measures the Bush administration has asked for," said Foley. "And to bring these S&L criminals to justice, we want to go further and enact provisions that seek to prevent anyone from obstructing the investigators."
House action on the S&L legislation comes as both Democrats and Republicans are furiously scrambling for political advantage on an issue that is likely to become a dominant factror in this year's congressional elections. Introduction of the legislative package also reflected the desires of some Democratic leaders in the House to tone down a recent flurry of finger-pointing rhetoric in favor of a substantive legislative approach that they can contrast with what they describe as the Bush administration's halting efforts to cope with the crisis.
Unlike the Senate, which recently passed legislation that includes life sentences for those convicted of S&L fraud, the House measure would leave intact the current maximum 30-year sentence. But it would create new federal offenses for concealing assets from a conservator and for obstructing a federal bank examination.
The legislation would also stop thrift operators from evading restitution to depositors by declaring bankruptcy and prevent S&L officials from receiving "golden parachutes" when they leave a financial institution.
The proposed 12-member commission -- four members would be appointed by the president and four each by the Democratic-controlled House and Senate -- would have a year to investigate the causes of the savings and loan crisis and ways to prevent a similar scandal in the future.
"We are sending a clear signal to the perpetrators and the public," said House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.). "The S&L crisis must be attacked head-on."