Posted on 07 May 2010
Last-minute maneuvering in the Senate allowed the Federal Reserve to sidestep legislation that would have exposed its interest-rate decision-making to congressional auditors.
Pressure from the Obama administration led Senate lawmakers to alter a provision pushed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) that was gaining momentum despite opposition from the Treasury and the Fed. It would have largely repealed a 32-year-old law that shields Fed monetary policy from congressional auditors.
The compromise, endorsed by Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd (D., Conn.) and the Treasury, would require the Fed to disclose more details about its lending during the financial crisis. It would also require a one-time audit of those loans and a one-time review of Fed governance. A formal vote was pushed back until next week.
Thursday's Senate showdown came after senators on the left and right joined forces to support Mr. Sanders' provision.
"At a time when our entire financial system almost collapsed, we cannot let the Fed operate in secrecy any longer," Mr. Sanders said. "The American people have a right to know."
But Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, while insisting on a commitment to "openness" at the Fed, said in a letter to Congress the Sanders measure would "seriously threaten monetary policy independence, increase inflation fears and market interest rates, and damage economic stability and job creation."
Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal Wolin, in a statement, endorsed the revisions to the Sanders provision, saying they would provide a comprehensive audit of the Federal Reserve Board's operations in response to the financial crisis, "while preserving the existing protections of the Federal Reserve's independence with respect to monetary policy."
A House bill sponsored by Rep. Ron Paul (R., Texas) that passed in December contains a proposal similar to the original Sanders measure. If the Senate bill passes, it will need to be reconciled in a conference committee. That keeps the pressure on the Fed alive for the coming months.
The original Sanders measure stated that it shouldn't be "construed as interference in or dictation of monetary policy." But the Fed and administration warned that would allow auditors to interview Fed policy makers and staffers about monetary policy, thereby allowing congressional critics to pressure the Fed and undermine its independence.
ke most other capitalist democracies, U.S. politicians have given the central bank considerable latitude to control interest rates on the theory that elected politicians are prone to keep rates too low to get more growth during their terms at the cost of more inflation later. Although sponsors of legislation insisted that wasn't their intent, the Fed and its allies said otherwise.
"It's a chilling kind of circumstance," former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker, an Obama adviser, said in an interview. "The more you have no clear boundaries about what's appropriate and what's inappropriate, you castrate the decision-making process. That's true for any organization, but it's particularly true when you get into the sensitivities of monetary policy that can generate speculative waves in financial markets and speculation in people's minds," said Mr. Volcker, who also urged lawmakers to eliminate the audit provision.
Anil Kashyap, an economist at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business, stressed that independent central banks need to be insulated from politics and make decisions several months ahead of expected trends.
"There are times when you have to start raising interest rates before the economy's recovering. If you're going to get audited while you do that, you know you're going to be slower—meaning we're going to tolerate higher inflation."
Before the last-minute compromise, the Fed's foes appeared to be winning, and got a major boost when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) said he would side with Mr. Sanders.
Mr. Bernanke, meanwhile, returned to Washington Thursday afternoon after a morning speech in Chicago to continue pressing for changes to the Sanders bill. In the past few days, Mr. Bernanke has spoken to at least a half-dozen senators to argue the Fed's case that the bill would deeply damage the Fed's credibility and ability to make tough decisions about interest rates.
At least half a dozen Obama administration officials joined the blitz, including Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner—a former Fed official—and Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff. Administration aides credited Mr. Dodd with pushing back against the original amendment and developing an acceptable alternative.
New York Fed President William Dudley also advocated to scale back the scope of the auditing. He was among those arguing that ongoing reviews of the Fed's regular lending to financial institutions would stigmatize the program and cripple the Fed's role as the nation's lender of last resort.
The Senate beat back another amendment with populist tinges, defeating 61-33 a provision that would have put strict caps on the size of the nation's banks. Offered by a bloc of liberal Democrats, it would have capped at 10% the limit on the nation's total insured deposits any single bank holding company could carry. It would have also set a 6% leverage limit for banks and capped their non-deposit liabilities at 2% of U.S. gross domestic product.