Treasury Department officials have never described their actions as the sole remedy. A spokesman noted that Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. recently testified that stabilizing the financial system was a necessary first step in any plan to address the financial and economic crisis.
“Our objectives in asking Congress for a financial rescue package were to first stabilize a financial system on the verge of collapse, and then to get lending going again to support the American people and businesses,” Mr. Paulson said at one recent hearing. “If the financial system were to collapse, it would significantly worsen and prolong the economic downturn.”
A Harvard law school professor and a consumer bankruptcy expert, Ms. Warren was named by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to the new five-member panel, created as part of the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, known as TARP, enacted in October. She was elected chairwoman at the group’s first meeting last Wednesday.
In that role, she will have a strong voice in shaping the mission of the panel and the content of the regular reports it will deliver to Congress as long as the TARP exists.
The panel’s power, as sketched out in the law, extends a bit beyond the “bully pulpit” but falls far short of a veto over specific proposals or programs. Its main source of influence is that it will have the ear of lawmakers who can tighten the bailout purse-strings or rewrite its charter.
“Good ideas produce their own power,” Ms. Warren said. “If we have good ideas, it will be a powerful series of reports. If we don’t, it won’t.”
Like much of the public, lawmakers “have just been stunned by these economic and financial developments,” she said. “There wasn’t time even to develop a coherent list of questions to ask Treasury about what it’s doing and what it plans to do — and whether either of those are likely to address what’s going wrong.”
She added: “Our role is to make sure that the right questions are asked as early as possible.”
In that spirit, she promised that Congress would get the panel’s first report on Dec. 10, “laying out the central questions that Treasury should be addressing as it spends the taxpayers’ money.”
Meetings with Treasury officials so far have made her question whether they understand that “household financial health is profoundly tied to the economic health of the nation,” she said. “You cannot repair this economy if you can’t repair those families, and I’m not sure the people directing the bailout see that as their job.”
In her view, the government should be trying to create more reliable customers for those banks by shoring up the fragile finances of the millions of American families that could not save, borrow or spend even if their banks were flush with capital.
“Any effective policy has to start with the households,” she said. “Years of flat wages, low savings and high debt have left America’s households extremely vulnerable.”
Ms. Warren, on the law faculty at Harvard since 1995, has written extensively and testified frequently before Congress on consumer credit laws and personal bankruptcy reform. She has been a member of several government advisory panels addressing consumer finance issues, and is the co-author of “The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers & Fathers Are Going Broke” (Basic Books, 2003).
Ms. Warren will also be responsible for getting the panel up and running quickly and steering it around the two other monitors put in place by the legislation, the Government Accountability Office, whose first report on the bailout is due Tuesday, and a special inspector general who is not yet on the job. (Neil M. Barofsky, a veteran federal prosecutor in Manhattan, has been nominated by the White House but is still awaiting Senate confirmation.)
The specific bailout investments, transactions and employment decisions need to be monitored closely to make sure they are appropriate and ethical, she said. “But we need to draw a distinction between policy oversight and procedural oversight,” she added. “I see our role as lying more in the policy realm, so I don’t think we duplicate those efforts.”
The panel is also required by law to provide Congress with recommendations for reforms to the financial regulatory structure, a report that she said it would deliver by Jan. 20.
Despite Ms. Warren’s ambitious timetable, the new Congressional panel is having a bumpy start.
Created with the law’s passage on Oct. 3, it existed only in theory until Nov. 14, when its first three members were appointed by the Democratic leadership in Congress. Besides Ms. Warren, they are Damon Silvers, an associate general counsel of the AFL-CIO and the panel’s new deputy chairman, and Richard H. Neiman, the state superintendent of banks for New York.
On Nov. 19, the Republican leaders in the House and Senate selected Representative Jeb Hensarling of Texas and Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire to fill out the panel.
But on Monday, Senator Gregg, who is also the ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, announced that he “will need to step aside from this effort.” He cited the legislative burden facing the Senate, specifically “an extremely large stimulus package” and “the ongoing issues of developing fiscal policy relative to the budget.”
Aides to Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, said his office expected to announce a successor soon.
Ms. Warren said she regretted his absence but still expected the panel to meet its deadlines.