It convened its first session when the oil was still gushing in the Gulf of Mexico, then staged a series of hearings, enlivened by its sharp-spoken co-chairmen, that held the spotlight on its work.
But with the release of the panel's final report, the show is over. In 60 days, the commission officially goes out of business. Its records will be trucked off to the National Archives in College Park, Md., where they will join the records of hundreds of other presidential commissions.
Will anyone ever think again of what the seven commission members had to say?
Don't count on it.
Presidents have been assembling panels of luminaries ever since George Washington dispatched three commissioners to Pennsylvania in 1794 to get to the bottom of the Whiskey Rebellion. In the time since, an assortment of dignitaries have been called on to examine social problems, riots, civil unrest, pension policy, postal services, world hunger, AIDS, pornography, gambling, military pay, organized crime, coal, water, gold and space -- every imaginable topic. Some, such as immigration, water quality and federal record keeping, were studied more than once.
Steve Tilley, a senior archivist at the National Archives, said he has no idea how many commission records are stored there. The most recent guide, published three administrations ago in 1994, lists 51 pages of commissions. That doesn't take into account, he added, other records that are sent off to presidential libraries.
The high points, or low points, depending on how you look at the usefulness of presidential panels, have come in the wake of World War II and again in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when slews of commissioners looked into a wide variety of issues, including the attack on Pearl Harbor and the status of women.
"If you want to put the best light on it, this is a way to take a highly charged or incredibly complex problem and turn it over to a group of experts who will take a nonpartisan approach to getting to the nub of the matter," said Steven Zink, author of "Guide to the Presidential Advisory Commissions: 1973-1987," and now vice president for information technology at the University of Nevada in Reno.
Sometimes the nub isn't all that complicated: President Gerald Ford's 1975 Commission on Olympic Sports was to delve into amateur sports in the U.S., but its real purpose was to figure out how America's athletes could beat the Russians at the height of the Cold War.
The enduring value of these panels depends in large part on what the president wants done. Not all are nobly enabled.
Two commissions assembled by President Ronald Reagan make the point, and both achieved their goals.
The Rogers Commission, which investigated the 1986 explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger, did get to the bottom of things. Its findings led to reforms at NASA and safety improvements to the shuttle.
But the Tower Commission didn't come up with much at all, in part by design. Reagan named the panel just 10 days after the Iran-Contra scandal blew up, threatening to tarnish his second term. The three-member panel found that Reagan was unaware of the extent of the sale of U.S. arms to Iran, which helped finance the payment of illegal aid to Nicaragua's anti-communist insurgents.
"Reagan knew the Democratically controlled Congress was going to get involved, and he correctly surmised they would issue a far more damning report," said Kenneth Kitts, a political scientist at Francis Marion University in Florence, S.C., and the author "Presidential Commissions and National Security: The Politics of Damage Control." "The Tower Commission would be less damning. It served Reagan's political ends."
On the other hand, more than one president has found himself at odds with the body he appointed.
One commission was so controversial that it shut down after 10 months without issuing a final report. President Harry Truman's Commission on Internal Security and Individual Rights was so opposed by congressional leaders during the communist-hunting days that led to the McCarthy era in the 1950s that Truman agreed to disband it.
President George W. Bush resisted appointing the 9/11 Commission for 14 months, but in the end, Congress adopted many of its recommendations. Still, the panel took steps to ensure its work would endure. Once their final report had been delivered, the commission's 10 members regrouped into a new organization and continued to hold public forums for another year to inform the public about terrorism.
"The 9/11 Commission didn't go gently into that good night," Kitts said. "The co-chairmen stayed on it and used the bully pulpit."
The heavyweight of commissions is, of course, the Warren Commission, which investigated the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The written record alone occupies 484 linear feet in the Archives' stacks, said Tilley, the archivist. Its papers remain the most actively researched collection among presidential commission records. Yet the report's central conclusion -- that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone -- failed to persuade conclusively and spawned generations of conspiracy theorists.
Likewise, the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, set up by President Lyndon Johnson after the 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, failed in at least one of its goals, as the events in Tucson serve to remind.
Another of President Barack Obama's panels that has recently gone out of business, the bipartisan debt commission, was written off in some quarters last month after only a draft report was released.
What's to become of the Oil Spill Commission's work remains to be seen. The panel looked into another watershed event in American life: the worst environmental disaster in the nation's history. But the commission's probe is just one of several, including the Justice Department investigation that will determine whether criminal charges are filed and fines are assessed against BP and its partners.
"How are you going to keep Congress from ignoring you?" boomed a voice from the center of the room.
William Reilly, one of the panel's co-chairmen, had a ready answer. First, many of the recommendations can be achieved by the man who appointed them through regulatory changes that don't require congressional approval. Never mind that Congress failed to pass any of its proposals to revise energy law last year, Reilly said he and his co-chairman, former Florida senator and governor Bob Graham, plan to testify to House and Senate committees Jan. 26.
Then there's always that bully pulpit. Said Reilly: "We're going to make a lot of noise."