A lonely voice against the Fed now leads a chorus
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
Ron Paul is used to going it alone. During 20 years in Washington, the libertarian Republican congressman from Texas has proposed doing away with personal income taxes, federal antitrust laws and the minimum wage. He's advocated pulling the United States out of the United Nations, NATO and the International Monetary Fund.
Those efforts have mostly been legislative non-starters. Many of his bills fail to attract a single co-sponsor.
But one of his perennial causes is headed to the House floor Wednesday with widespread support: to audit the Federal Reserve. That measure, which he first introduced in 1983, has the backing of more than 300 legislators and last month won bipartisan approval in the House Financial Services Committee.
The proposal would subject the Fed to unprecedented scrutiny by allowing the Government Accountability Office to audit all central bank operations, including its decisions on interest rates, lending to individual banks and transactions with foreign central banks. Fed officials and many private economists have argued strenuously against the measure, saying it would threaten economic stability by undermining the central bank's independence from political pressure.
"I'd like to know who they bail out and why," said Paul, who brought together a small cult following across the political spectrum in the last presidential election. "I'd like to know how much they pay for securities that they buy. Did they overpay? Why did Goldman Sachs come out well and Lehman Brothers go bankrupt?"
Author of 'End the Fed'
That Paul's proposal has garnered so much support despite opposition from the Obama administration is not so much a testament to his political prowess. Rather, it reflects populist discontent over an institution increasingly blamed for its failure to head off the financial crisis and for its role in rescuing large financial firms that helped cause it.
"He's been dogged about it and stayed with it," said Steve H. Hanke, an economics professor at Johns Hopkins University. "The lesson in salesmanship is illustrated by Paul's actions. However, the consuming public is obviously ready to buy now. . . . There's just a great deal of skepticism out there. And in that environment, a bill that would require more transparency and less secrecy gets some traction."
But Paul's critique of the Fed goes well beyond the lessons of the financial bailout. He believes market forces alone, not the Fed, should set interest rates. His best-selling book is called "End the Fed." He has a separate bill to abolish the Fed altogether. (He is the lone sponsor.)
Paul said in an interview that his measure is strictly about transparency at the "all-powerful" Federal Reserve.
"What they're talking about when they say they want no political influence, what they're talking about is they just want secrecy," Paul said. "Why would they be so nervous about us finding this out? It tells you there's something big going on."
Leaders at the Fed have repeatedly stressed to Congress their increased efforts at transparency. Fed officials have noted that the central bank is disclosing more information than ever about its operations and balance sheet, which has expanded by more than $1 trillion as the Fed has carried out unprecedented actions to stabilize the financial system. Fed officials have also said they would work with Congress to provide additional information about how taxpayer funds are being used.
First elected to Congress in 1976, Paul has earned the nickname Dr. No from colleagues for his record of voting against almost anything he sees as intruding on free markets or amounting to government overreach.