By Anne Flaherty
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate has agreed to spend $5 million to investigate the cause of the economic crisis, as it moves toward passing a $245 million bill that would substantially increase the number of FBI agents and prosecutors working mortgage fraud cases.
The legislation is aimed at showing voters that lawmakers are serious about getting to the bottom of the nation's financial woes, even as they struggle to agree on how to improve the economy and prevent it from getting worse.
"We must hold those responsible for this calamity to account," said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D.
President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats have vowed to complete by the end of the year an overhaul of the federal regulatory system governing the nation's financial institutions. Democrats say that had regulations been tighter, banks would not have taken many of the risky bets that ultimately put them in danger of collapsing and required a $700 billion government bailout.
But as Republicans and Democrats debate the finer points of that longer-term effort, lawmakers are pitching ways to provide immediate relief to cash-strapped voters.
The $245 million fraud bill is "our chance to authorize the necessary additional resources to detect, fight and deter fraud that robs the American people and American taxpayers of their funds," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who co-sponsored the bill with Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.
With $75 million slated to go to the FBI, bill supporters anticipate the agency could hire 160 more special agents and another 200 supporting personnel, including forensic analysts.
Currently, the FBI has fewer than 250 special agents assigned to financial fraud cases, despite caseloads having more than doubled in the past three years. According to a report on the bill, the FBI cannot investigate the more than 5,000 fraud allegations received by the Treasury Department each month.
Also under the bill, the Justice Department would receive $90 million to hire 200 more prosecutors and civil enforcement attorneys and 100 supporting personnel.
Other government entities in line to receive money include the Secret Service, Postal Inspection Service and the inspector general for the Housing and Urban Development Department.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Richard Shelby, R-Ala., want to add $20 million to the bill for the Securities and Exchange Commission to boost its enforcement capabilities.
The White House supports the bill. In a statement released Monday, the administration said the additional resources would provide "a return on investment through additional fines, penalties, restitution, damages, and forfeitures."
The Senate voted 92-4 on Wednesday to amend the bill to create the $5 million "Financial Markets Commission." Proposed by Conrad and Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., the congressionally appointed panel would be modeled after the 9-11 Commission, which investigated the 2001 terrorist attack. Members would be given 18 months to recommend steps to prevent another financial downturn.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has said she supports the concept of a financial commission.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.