Thursday, June 25, 2009

Why Are Republicans Attacking The Republican Fed Chairman?

Why would Republican law makers want to attack Bernanke, a Republican appointed by President Bush? If Bernanke resigns, Obama could appoint a Democrat as Fed Chairman. Economist Mark Thoma from Economist's View, attempts to explain this counter-intuitive strategy.

The GOP is targeting Bernanke as "a champion of government intrusion and an ally of President Obama":

G.O.P. to Paint Bernanke as Ally of Big Government, by Edmund L. Andrews and Louise Story, NY Times: In a peculiar role reversal, Republican lawmakers are mounting a ferocious attack on the Republican chairman of the Federal Reserve, while Democrats are coming to his defense.

Ben S. Bernanke ... will be grilled on Thursday by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee about his role in orchestrating Bank of America’s controversial takeover of Merrill Lynch late last year.

The House investigation is heavily colored by partisanship. President Obama is proposing to give the Federal Reserve formidable new powers to regulate giant institutions, including Bank of America, that could pose risks to the financial system.

Republicans, along with some Democrats, argue that the Fed already has too much power.

Unhappy about the huge bank bailouts that the Fed arranged with the Treasury Department during the Bush administration, many Republicans are even more displeased that Mr. Bernanke is now working hand-in-glove with the Obama administration.

The result is a set of dueling narratives and agendas, all of which will be on full display when Mr. Bernanke testifies on Thursday. ...

Despite Mr. Bernanke’s Republican roots, and the fact that President Bush nominated him to be Fed chairman, the Republican memo prepared for the hearing on Thursday describes Mr. Bernanke as a champion of government intrusion and an ally of President Obama. ...

I don't think this is an attempt to negatively influence Obama's decision on Bernanke's reappointment as Fed chair as some have been hinting because that would not be in the GOP's best interest. There are open positions on the Federal Reserve Board, so even if Bernanke didn't resign as is customary in the event he was not reappointed - and nothing says he must - Obama would still be free to appoint a new Fed Chair from outside the present Board membership.

Obama would certainly appoint someone who shares his regulatory vision, and that person would likely be confirmed (e.g. someone like Janet Yellen would likely be confirmed even if there was lots of grumbling), so I don't see how the appointment of a new Fed chair would do anything but strengthen the support for the type of regulatory oversight the administration envisions. That's not what the GOP wants.

Instead, this looks much more like an attempt to by the GOP to maintain its usual anti-regulatory, anti-government stance by arguing that the Fed should not to be trusted with the powers envisioned in the proposed regulatory reform legislation. So the real goal is the Fed as an institution, Bernanke is simply the target being used to make that the point. E.g.:

The vast extent of the Fed’s actions in the past two years to commit trillions of dollars in government money to support the economy has raised significant concerns on Capitol Hill, some of which will be aired on Thursday when Bernanke testifies before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Congressional investigators have been looking into the Fed’s role in encouraging Bank of America to purchase Merrill Lynch... Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), ranking member on the Oversight Committee, said on Wednesday that the Fed engaged in a “cover-up” and hid details about the merger, completed in January 2009, from other federal agencies.

Meanwhile, lawmakers from both parties are raising questions about Obama’s proposal to grant the Fed broad new powers to prevent another crisis.

Those concerns could make the next confirmation process far more contentious than the six that have occurred in the last two decades.
Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said, “It won’t be my decision whether he is held over or not, but right now I’m concerned that they have lost their independence and are too cozy with Treasury.”

It looks like we are going to get some version of a strategy that has the GOP saying that given what happened to the financial system, of course we need more oversight and regulation of the financial system. But any particular piece of legislation that is proposed will be fought tooth and nail by the GOP as being far too intrusive, granting the government too much power, and generally going far beyond what is needed to solve the problem. The fact that the will for reform will diminish with time works in their favor, and if they can string things out long enough with this strategy, the result will be that the legislation eventually passes in a much weaker form, or it won't ever pass at all.

Just ignore them. Altering a few words:

The Republicans, with a few possible exceptions, have decided to do all they can to make the Obama administration a failure. Their role in the financial regulation debate is purely that of spoilers who keep shouting the old slogan — Government is always the problem, never the solution! — hoping that someone still cares.

This article was reposted from Mark Thoma's blog, Economist's View.

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