Bernanke Jabs Back at Fed's Critics In Congress

By Neil Irwin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke launched a more aggressive defense of the central bank's multitrillion-dollar campaign to prop up the economy, as government bailouts came under fire Tuesday from all directions on Capitol Hill.

Lawmakers were reluctant to second-guess rescues and interventions in the darkest days of the financial crisis. But now, with the financial system stabilizing and the unemployment rate at 9.5 percent and climbing, there is deepening frustration in Congress and around the country that there is not more to show from the trillions of dollars the government has put at risk.

Bernanke argued before the House Financial Services Committee that the Fed's actions helped prevent a global economic calamity, and he promised an exit strategy to head off fears of inflation. His comments came as other government officials were also sharply criticized for their handling of the financial rescue.

Just down the hall, a separate House committee assailed the Treasury Department's execution of the financial system rescue, arguing that it has been deployed without enough accountability. "The taxpayers now have a $700 billion spending program that's being run under the philosophy of 'don't ask, don't tell,' " said Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) in a hearing on the Troubled Assets Relief Program.

In the same building, members of a third committee were enraged that Chrysler and General Motors dealerships in their districts were being shut down despite government bailouts of the companies. [Related stories, A11.]

The specific complaints vary among lawmakers and, especially, between the two parties -- Democrats are more concerned that the rescues are helping big companies but not ordinary Americans, while Republicans are worried about government meddling in private industry. Members of both parties want the Fed, the Treasury and other agencies to be more open with Congress and the public about what they are doing.

Bernanke's appearance is only the beginning of a broader defense of the Fed's actions over the past two years. With the central bank under more extensive fire than it has been in a quarter-century, the mild-mannered economics professor is taking a more aggressive stance in explaining Fed policy than he has in the past.

That effort is likely to continue in two more appearances before Congress this week and at a town-hall-style appearance in Kansas City, Mo., being taped Sunday night, to be hosted by PBS anchor Jim Lehrer and to include questions posed by audience members.

Typically, Bernanke begins his semiannual testimony on monetary policy with a dry statement on the state of the economy. ("As you are aware, the U.S. economy is undergoing a severe contraction" was the opener in February.)

On Tuesday, he opened his remarks much more forcefully: "Aggressive policy actions taken around the world last fall may well have averted the collapse of the global financial system."

Bernanke argued that "many of the improvements in financial conditions can be traced, in part, to policy actions taken by the Federal Reserve," including cutting interest rates nearly to zero and complex new programs to restart lending.

"He came out swinging," said Michael Feroli, a senior economist at J.P. Morgan Chase. "It seemed like a pretty pointed response to some of the Fed's critics."

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