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DEBORAH AMOS, Host:

The CEOs from four of the biggest banks that got government bailouts are on Capitol Hill today. They're fielding tough questions. But those questions aren't coming from lawmakers. They're coming from a commission that Congress established with a mandate to conduct a thorough investigation. One of the panel members started things out by inviting the public to pose questions, too.

BILL THOMAS: Anyone who wants to write me - Bill Thomas, FCIC.gov - and submit a question, we'll do the best we can to get you the answer.

AMOS: Former Congressman Bill Thomas. NPR's John Ydstie has this report on the commission's task.

JOHN YDSTIE: These are the first public hearings conducted by the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission. It's been compared to the 9/11 Commission, which probed the failures after the attack on the World Trade Center. The commission chairman, Phil Angelides, former California state treasurer, used some evocative language as he described the commission's task in an interview with NPR.

PHIL ANGELIDES: There's a need for accountability and responsibility. And I think it serves everyone's purpose to get the facts and the truth on the table so that this country can move on.

YDSTIE: Angelides, a former Democratic candidate for governor in California, is one of six Democratic appointees to the commission. There are also four Republican appointees. One of them is Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office, who was the top economic advisor to presidential candidate John McCain.

DOUGLAS HOLTZ: We owe the American people an official version of what happened. This is a national crisis. It's an expensive national endeavor to repair it. And I think people have the right to understand what happened and why.

YDSTIE: There are already plenty of explanations for what caused the financial crisis, from unrestrained risk-taking on Wall Street to irresponsible borrowing by homeowners. But Heather Murren, a former Merrill Lynch analyst and another Democratic appointee to the commission, says the cause and effect are not yet completely clear.

HEATHER MURREN: Our job is finding the actual facts and also sorting out the things that were most important from the things that were perhaps less important.

YDSTIE: The commission has an $8 million budget and has assembled a staff of 35 to investigate and analyze the ocean of data, research and testimony already compiled on the crisis.

It has been tasked by Congress to review 22 separate areas of interest, from fraud and abuse in the financial sector to compensation practices. The commission will gather testimony in hearings, including several panels of witnesses today and tomorrow. And, says Republican appointee former Congressman Bill Thomas, the commission will be hard to ignore.

THOMAS: We do have the power of the subpoena. We can refer to the Department of Justice. That's not a threat. That's just an understanding on the part of Congress that some people may not be as willing as others.

YDSTIE: One other challenge the commission faces is that the Congress is well down the road to a sweeping overhaul of financial regulation. The House has already passed a bill, and the Senate is likely to act before the commission's final report is due in December of this year. But Holtz-Eakin believes he and his colleagues can still have an impact.

HOLTZ: Financial regulation reform is not a one-shot operation. There will be future reforms in years to come. Even this reform has a timetable that's uncertain, so as they work on legislation this year and we find things, there's no reason why we can't inform the debate and provide some value.

YDSTIE: Both Holtz-Eakin and Murren express confidence that the commission will not get bogged down in partisanship, and that it will be able to reach a high level of agreement on the causes of the financial crisis.

John Ydstie, NPR News, Washington.

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