Does It Really Matter How Elizabeth Warren Spent TARP Oversight Funds?

Sometimes it seems like Republicans — and much of the press covering them — are more worried about how those scrutinizing the financial industry and the nature of the 2008 economic collapse are spending their rather small operating budgets than the big picture: the hundreds of billions doled out to the big banks.

Thus the latest broadside at the Massachusetts Senate candidate, former chair of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP, the bailout of the banks) Congressional Oversight Panel, and mastermind of the new agency to protect consumers from bad faith financial actors, Elizabeth Warren:

Elizabeth Warren became a hero of the left for her unrelenting pursuit of accountability and transparency with big banks and Wall Street firms that took billions of dollars in federal bailout money in 2008.

But when it comes to how her own bailout watchdog committee spent more than $10 million in taxpayer money, Warren has been a lot less forthcoming.

Warren, who is seeking the Democratic Senate nomination in Massachusetts to take on Republican Scott Brown, has yet to break down exactly how her congressional panel spent the money on travel expenses, meals and consultants, nor has Warren revealed the total amount she was paid while serving as chairman.

The Congressional Oversight Panel, which existed for more than two years, has not yet disclosed any other staff salaries either — even though the five-member panel was created and run by Congress, where nearly every staffer salary and office expense, from plane tickets to bottled water, is publicly available.

In fact, Warren opposed GOP efforts to draft a budget for the bipartisan oversight panel, despite telling The Associated Press in 2008 that she wouldn’t buy a winter coat without a spending plan.

Warren declined to be interviewed for this story, and a spokesman for her Senate campaign insisted that the oversight panel had been transparent in its operations. However, late Wednesday night, the spokesman said Warren had reversed her position and now supports opening up all the committee records to public scrutiny.

“The Congressional Oversight Panel was responsible for overseeing hundreds of billions of dollars in TARP spending and was recognized for its strong return on investment, saving taxpayers billions of dollars,” said spokesman Kyle Sullivan. “The panel followed all reporting requirements set up by Congress and publicly disclosed its budget and spending information to Congress and in published reports. Now that the panel has completed its work, Elizabeth supports public access to its records.”

The narrative here is that Ms. Warren isn’t the squeaky-clean moral leader on this issue that she claims — or something.

But the difference between overseeing how $700 billion is distributed to the banks that brought down the world economy and being completely transparent in accounting for how a relatively tiny sum is used to look out for taxpayers seems lost on everyone here.

Lest we forget, Rep. Darrell Issa, top Republican on the House Oversight Committee, raised a stink last year over how the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission was spending its (also tiny) budget in reporting on how the economy collapsed in 2008:

Monday is the deadline set by Darrell Issa, the Republican chairman of the House oversight committee, for Phil Angelides, chairman of the commission, to provide financial information and e-mail records to allow a congressional investigation of the investigators.

Mr Issa says he wants to check that taxpayers got value for money in the investigation and to examine any potential conflicts of interest, the high staff turnover, requests for more funding and the breakdown in relations between Republicans and Democrats.

To be sure, there’s no reason for Warren not to come forth and be transparent about her work and how it was budgeted — and the same applies to the FCIC.

But that Republican leaders continue to harangue tiny inefficiencies in the federal government while refusing to address broader, structural budget problems — like an increasingly regressive tax code and banks holding taxpayers hostage — is a huge isuse for America, and deserves all the reportorial oxygen possible.


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