WASHINGTON, D.C. - The top members of a key House panel told banking leaders Wednesday they must win over a disgusted public and work harder to right the deeply troubled financial system.
"I urge you going forward to be ungrudgingly cooperative," said Rep. Barney Frank, the Democratic chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. "There has to be a sense of the American people that you understand their anger ... and that you're willing to make some sacrifices to get this working."
The panel's top Republican, Spencer Bachus of Alabama, said the bankers and Congress will have to do their part to sway people by "winning back their trust and their confidence."
Taxpayers are furious with big banks that benefited from the federal bailout designed to get credit moving again but that also spent lavishly on company retreats and office redecorating, and lawmakers are feeling the heat for signing off on the $700 billion plan.
Eight chief executives and company chairmen were testifying before Frank's panel in the Rayburn House Office Building in what was the first such examination by lawmakers since they passed the legislation last year.
They were met with deep skepticism from lawmakers who told tales of furious constituents and were ready to aggressively quiz the CEOs on how they have used more than $160 billion in taxpayers' money.
The CEOs brought a message of accommodation and gratitude. They applauded the program for making more loans available and promised to pay their share of the money back to the Treasury over time. Anticipating confrontations over their own compensation, several asserted that none of the government's money went to bonuses or dividends.
They also generally agreed with lawmakers' calls for better cooperation and better public relations. They were contrite and conceded they face a bitter public. They had little choice but to acknowledge as much, given intense anger by both lawmakers and the public as the troubled financial system continues to spiral downward in the midst of an already deep recession.
"We understand taxpayers are angry" and they are right in demanding that institutions receiving their money take a "conservative, sober and frugal" approach to using it, said Kenneth D. Lewis of Bank of America.
Added Lloyd C. Blankfein of the Goldman Sachs Group, Inc.: "We have to regain the public's trust and do everything we can to help mend our financial system to restore stability and vitality."
Yet, for all the words of contrition, the CEOs also sought to show they were being prudent.
"We lent more even as customers cut back on their spending" during the last financial quarter of 2008, said JP Morgan Chase & Co.'s Jamie Dimon. Still, he added: "We stand ready to do our part going forward."
Robert P. Kelly of The Bank of New York Mellon promised "a very good return on the investment for taxpayers" and acknowledged "we still have a long way to go" to jump start the U.S. credit market.