- "Time. Keeps flowing like a river. To the sea. To the sea. ‘Til it’s gone forever. Gone forever. Gone forevermore."
– Time, The Alan Parsons Project
Time is the most valuable commodity on Capitol Hill. But time grows more precious when curbs are placed on the time lawmakers have to probe Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke about what they knew about $165 million in bonuses government-owned AIG paid forked over to executives.
Congressional committee chairs are legendary for imposing tight time restrictions on witnesses and lawmakers inflicted with logorrhea at hearings. But no one watches the clock quite like Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-MA).
At a December hearing featuring the CEO’s of the Big 3 automakers, Frank restricted committee members to tight, five-minute windows to ask their questions and receive answers. Frank even admonished the executives when they tarried leaving the hearing as the chairman tried to rush another panel to the witness table.
Frank was tough at the December hearing. But he hermetically sealed the lawmakers question and answer time at Tuesday’s hearing with Geithner, Bernanke and New York Federal Reserve President William Dudley. The Financial Services panel is a burgeoning one with 71 members. And amid the public furor over AIG’s bonuses, most of the members on the panel wedged into the hearing room to score a few moments with Geithner and Bernanke. So Frank implored his colleagues to adhere to five-minute sessions.
"I wish I didn’t have the five-minute rule. And I wish we didn’t have so many members. And I wish I could lose weight without dieting," Frank lamented.
Frank instructed committee members that if they asked a question and a witness was in mid-answer when time expired, the witness would only be allowed to finish his sentence.
"And it will not have too many dependent clauses," Frank warned, his role evolving from timekeeper to grammarian.
Clauses, dependent or otherwise, were key at this hearing. While Frank focused on grammatical clauses, most lawmakers wanted to know how Geithner compelled Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-CT) to stuff a clause into the gigantic economic stimulus bill that exempted the government from suing firms that received federal assistance. But Frank put his gavel where his wristwatch is. The chairman sternly rapped the gavel three times when Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-AL), bled over during his questioning of Geithner.
"No, I'm sorry. The gentleman has now exceeded the five minutes," Frank admonished Bachus, even Geithner was in mid-answer. "As I said before, the last person speaking during the five minutes will complete a sentence and we will move on. Mr. Geithner, you want to complete the sentence?"
Geithner momentarily struggled for a word then chuckled.
"I forgot where I was in the sentence," said a chagrined Treasury Secretary.
- "Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day. You fritter and waste the hours in an off-hand way." Time, Pink Floyd.
A bit later, it was Rep. Scott Garrett’s (R-NJ) turn. In an exchange with Geithner, the Treasury Secretary tried to interrupt Garrett as he attempted to pose a question.
"Let me finish the question," Garrett said.
Frank rose to the defense of his colleague.
"The gentleman from New Jersey has the time," Frank told Geithner.
The genial Garrett thought he’d extend an olive branch to Geithner so he could perhaps make his point later.
"If I can go around again, I’ll let you elaborate on that," the New Jersey Republican said to Geithner.
Garrett’s offer was too much for Frank.
"In your dreams!" he warned Garrett, drawing laughter from the crowd.
Garrett knew that wresting more than five minutes of time away from Frank was simply pie in the sky.
"And I do dream about this stuff, oddly enough," Garrett countered wistfully.
Ever the diplomat, Frank made sure Garrett wasn’t penalized by his interruption.
"Give the gentleman an additional ten seconds, please," Frank told his staff.
- "In time, it could have been so much more. The time is precious I know. In time, itcould have been so much more. The time has nothing to show." – Time (Clock of the Heart), Culture Club
Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) was the only lawmaker to press her luck with Frank. The chairman gaveled Bachmann down without an answer as she asked Geithner whether taxpayers would recoup their investment when purchasing toxic assets.
"The gentlewoman's time has expired," Frank informed the hearing.
"Mr. Chair, could I have an answer from them?" Bachmann asked.
Bachmann’s attempt drew Frank’s ire.
"No. No. As I explained, members control the time. You cannot extend your time into somebody else's time and then get an answer in addition. As I said, the person speaking at the expiration of the time will be the last person speaking," Frank lectured, to questions from Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-NY).
Frank didn’t only apply discipline to lawmakers. At one point, he good-naturedly lectured Bernanke when the Fed chief attempted to interrupt a lawmaker making a statement.
"Mr Chairman, the rules are that we get to talk whenever we want. That’s the rules," Frank said, again drawing laughter from the crowd.
Time was of the essence at the hearing. Especially since Geithner had to leave at 1 pm sharp, although Bernanke and Dudley remained until 1:15. Frank made a point that although Geithner was leaving now, he’d face more tough questions from lawmakers at a hearing later in the week.
"I just look forward to Thursday," Geithner informed Frank.
Anticipating another grilling from committee members, Frank wondered aloud if Geithner was hallucinating.
"Well, you weren't under oath when you said that, so I'll let it go by," Frank responded.
Perhaps the only thing Frank let slide on Tuesday.
- Chad Pergram covers Congress for FOX News. He’s won an Edward R. Murrow Award and the Joan Barone Award for his reporting on Capitol Hill.