Federal Reserve Independence Under Threat

By Marc Seltzer; originally published on December 1, 2009, at care2.com

. . .

Readers of this website (care2.com)  have a healthy skepticism of government. They see that well-heeled special interests assert too much power in Congress.  Our representatives in Washington should devote themselves to the public interest, but too often appear to serve lobbyists and work for campaign contributions, instead. This view is held by Democrats and Republicans alike, one of few shared beliefs.

Unfortunately, this bipartisan, anti-government nexus has led to legislation to audit the Federal Reserve, the powerful financial stewards of the economy.

This is likely a bad idea and one that suckers good activist public energy down the wrong path.  The reason that the Federal Reserve is unelected and insulated from political manipulation is that its powers would be very tempting to misuse for political gain.  If Congress or the President could, for example, force the Federal Reserve to lower interest rates and stimulate the economy when unemployment goes up, they would do so.  However, the Federal Reserve manages long-term monetary policy to obtain stability and growth in light of concerns over inflation, exchange rates, and productivity.  This may include inflicting a certain amount of household suffering on the American economy to fight inflation or deal with crises where sacrifice today insures wealth and stability tomorrow.  If politicians could interfere, this would never happen.

The audit legislation responds to anguish about the failure of the government to regulate financial activity and risk in the lead-up to the current crisis. It also channels anger over the solutions to the crisis that the Fed has created.

Those who are against corporate greed and excessive wealth could better use the tax code to force corporations to pay their fair share.  Moreover, the proper response to failures of deregulation is increased regulation forcing private institutions to have higher capital reserves, lower leverage ratios and more significant safeguards and oversight than existed since Clinton-era deregulation.  No one is claiming that government got it all right.  But remember, it was political and financial interests that led to the current crisis.  And note that politicians have proposed everything from doing nothing to nearly twice the stimulus that was passed in response to the crisis.

The Federal Reserve is made up of professional economists and financial experts fulfilling a public service.  It is not immune to mistakes, but the Federal Reserve has, with specific limited exceptions, maintained a healthy independence from political authority.

Sacrificing that independence when the Fed makes mistakes or when we don’t like its decisions — which is what this legislation is really about — is not the answer.  Once the Federal Reserve is damaged, political and financial interests will use the Fed to serve current political goals at the expense of the long term financial health of the nation.

We know what that scenario looks like in practice because we have the example of Congress.  Congress never cuts expenses because our representatives are beholden for their jobs to special interests served by that government spending. One of the great examples of cost-cutting in government was done by the Base-Closings Commission, an independent panel appointed for the purpose of solving a problem that congress could not otherwise solve.

What we need is more fiscal responsibility, not less.

May 6, 2010 UPDATE:  The Senate voted down an amendment to the financial reform legislation today that would have subject the Federal Reserve to more congressional authority.

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