Janet Yellen’s confirmation looks like smooth sailing

November 21, 2013

With the banking committee's vote, Yellen has cleared a key hurdle for confirmation. (Jacquelyn Martin/ Associated Press)

Well, that was anticlimactic. The Senate Banking Committee approved Janet Yellen's nomination to become chairwoman of the Federal Reserve by a 14-8 vote Thursday, in a crisp, workmanlike session that took only a few minutes. Her nomination will now go before the full Senate, and there is every reason to think she will be easily confirmed.

Yellen won over three of the 10 Republicans on the committee, with favorable votes from Sens. Tom Coburn (Okla.), Bob Corker (Tenn.) and Mark Kirk (Illinois), lawmakers whose respect for Yellen's long experience and wise temperament apparently overruled misgivings about the Fed's easy money policies.

The bigger surprise was that one of the 12 Democrats on the committee, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, voted against Yellen, defying expectations that Yellen would receive the unanimous support of Democrats. Manchin delivered some of the more memorable comments at Yellen's confirmation hearing last week, seemingly suggesting that if Yellen were Fed chair she'd need to do more to pressure Congress to exercise fiscal restraint (though his remarks did not really suggest he was leaning toward a "no" vote on Yellen):

Let me just say this. That you having that experience and lived through it, worked it through and was successful with it -- and we have the utmost respect for the Reserve, yourself, and I'm sure that you see the committee has the utmost respect for you.

 

We just need you to speak out and help us a little bit more and challenge us to do our job. If people like yourself who are in the know are unwilling to challenge us, I'll guarantee you, we don't have the political will, it seems like, to do what needs to be done. We have got to get our financial house in order.

 

Every citizen in American has to face a budget. Every one of them has to live within that budget. And we're unwilling to make that difficult decision. We're on not only a sugar high, we're going to go into sugar shock pretty soon. And that's what I've been talking.

 

And -- but unless we hear the unbridled truth from people in the know, people who have been there -- they said you couldn't do and you did it.  . . .

 

I'd like to get back to that again. And I think people like yourself can help us be steered in that direction. So be bold. Be bold.

Manchin's no vote aside, what especially notable is how much more peaceful this vote was than the equivalent vote four years ago on Ben Bernanke's nomination for a second term as Fed chairman. At the time, the nation was not long removed from the financial crisis, anger over the financial bailouts was at a high water mark, and the unemployment rate was 9.8 percent, 2.5 percentage points higher than it is now.

That vote came shortly after Bernanke had been named Time magazine's Person of the Year. Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), was not amused.

I must take the opportunity to comment on Chairman Bernanke being named Time magazine person of the year yesterday. One financial blogger wrote yesterday that this was like rewarding the captain of the Titanic for getting everyone off the sinking ship after he rammed it into the iceberg. And Chairman Bernanke may wonder if he really wants to be honored by an organization that has previously named people like Josef Stalin twice, Yasser Arafat, Adolf Hitler, the Ayatollah Khomeini, Vladimir Putin, Richard Nixon twice, as their person of the year. But I congratulate him and hope he at least turns out better than most of those people.

Maybe it's because the economy is in better shape and the crisis-era hostility to the Fed has softened. Or maybe it's because Bunning has retired. But regardless, the simple absence of Hitler comparisons makes Yellen's confirmation vote a rather more civil affair than the one Bernanke experienced.

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Brad Plumer · November 21, 2013