Reporter's Notebook: At Auto Hearing, Frank Runs a Tight Ship

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Amsterdam is notorious for its Red Light District.

On Capitol Hill, the Red Light District is Rayburn Room 2128, home of the House Financial Services Committee.

House and Senate committees use a timing system to control the ebb and flow of testimony and questions from lawmakers. Depending on how many minutes are allotted, members of Congress and witnesses are asked to keep their eyes on a series of lights at the front of the room. A green light means you can keep speaking. A yellow light means you're fast approaching the end of your time. A red light? Game over.

The timekeeper? Committee Chairman Barney Frank, D-Mass. And Frank was in top form Friday during his panel's turn at grilling the Big Three auto execs.

Following the nearly six-hour talk-a-thon Thursday where the Big Three executives testified before the Senate Banking Committee (with no restroom or lunch break), Frank decided to run a tighter ship. The Massachusetts Democrat put fellow lawmakers and witnesses on notice that there would be no dawdling.

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He wasn't joking.

First, Frank declared he intended to dismiss the panel of the auto execs and the union by 12:30 p.m. And then he warned lawmakers that they would be recognized for no more than five minutes a piece.

"If you ask a question that takes four minutes and 47 seconds, you can expect an answer that lasts 13 seconds," Frank said.

NFL coaches running two-minute drills before the end of the half would envy the chairman's clock management.

After giving his opening statement, Frank made sure he timed the opening remarks of the top Republican on the committee, Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala. As a nod to Bachus' efficiency, Frank announced to the hearing that his Alabama colleague consumed only "four minutes." Thus Bachus set a good example for the rest of the group.

Frank focused an eagle eye on the green, yellow and green lights throughout the session. When lawmakers' time expired, Frank lightly tapped the gavel with the handle end. But if they bled over more than a few seconds, he rapped it a little harder and barked at them that their time had expired.

Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., challenged the system as the red light flashed on. That spurred a harsh admonition from the chairman. Frank simply spoke over Ackerman as the New York Democrat uttered his final lines.

And even witnesses weren't immune to Frank's time management.

At one point, Ford CEO Alan Mulally struggled to find the right words to answer a lawmaker's query just as the time wound down.

"Quickly!" Frank shouted at Mulally as the executive sputtered out his final words.

In basketball, a horn sounds at the end of the half or when the shot clock expires. A shot counts if it's launched before the horn blows, even if the ball doesn't pass through the hoop before time expires.

So, does an answer at a hearing count if it's started before the clock winds down, even if the answer isn't complete when Frank bangs the gavel? Probably not on Frank's watch.

Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., knew he was pushing the limits when he talked to executives and watched his light flick from yellow to red.

"My time's about to run out," said Price, triggering three stern raps from Frank's gavel.

"Quickly! Last sentence!" Frank directed Price.

A little later, Chrysler CEO Bob Nardelli answered a question posed by Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif. But again, the sands of time ran out before Mulally and GM's Rick Wagoner could respond.

"The others will have to answer in writing," ordered Frank.

Frank's strict time impositions even influenced what lawmakers discussed. At Thursday's Senate hearing, Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., mused about the transportation methods the CEOs used to arrive in Washington. Rep. Thad McCotter, R-Mich., told the executives Friday that he wasn't "going to ask about your travel arrangements because I'm a congressman. Not a Conde Nast travel agent."

Bachus drew laughter when he appealed to Frank for more time. "We were told that if we came here on a horse or in an electric car we would get an extra minute," he said.

Despite Frank's aim of wrapping up the CEO panel at a firm 12:30 p.m., that portion of the hearing didn't conclude until 12:50 p.m.

At 12:32 p.m., the time-keeper-in-chief begged the indulgence of the CEOs to go a little longer so all lawmakers present had a chance to ask questions.

The chairman may have regretted relaxing his self-imposed punctuality, when the musings of Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., began.

During her time, Capito reminisced about the cars her family owned when she was growing up. They had a Grand-Am she referred to as "Goldie." A car known as "Big Blue" was a Mercury. The congresswoman said there was another car they called "The Crasher." And then she said her dad (former West Virginia Gov. Arch Moore) used to drive around in a wood-paneled station wagon that Capito referred to as "the chick magnet."

An exasperated expression blanketed Frank's face and he started to drop the gavel on Capito.

"I'm sorry Mr. Chairman," Capito apologized hastily, fearful her drive down memory lane was about to invoke the ire of Father Time.

But Frank, one of only a handful of openly gay members of Congress, stood down.

"Chick magnet," he scoffed. "It's just not something I'd ever want to drive."

The room exploded with laughter.

A few minutes later, the chairman gaveled down the first session of the hearing and excused the auto executives. He told the crowd he wanted the next panel seated quickly so the hearing could continue.

Frank, who embodies his surname, unceremoniously dismissed the witnesses.

"Please leave! Right now! Go!" Frank said.

Ford's Alan Mulally dallied momentarily, shaking hands with his fellow automakers.

"It may seem trivial to you, Mr. Mulally! Just please exit!" Frank commanded the Ford chief.
And with that, the Mulally left the hearing room.

In a timely fashion, of course.

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.