Bernanke seeks to preserve Fed's power by compromising with Congress

By Neil Irwin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 25, 2010; A18

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke launched a wide-ranging effort Wednesday to fend off congressional efforts to take powers away from the central bank, laying out a series of compromises and olive branches meant to defuse lawmakers' criticism.

Testifying before the House Financial Services Committee, Bernanke said he will support legislation to disclose the names of companies that take advantage of special Fed lending programs, so long as enough time has passed since the loan requests to avoid stigmatizing the firms. He also said he will support expanding congressional oversight of many of the Fed's functions if its power over monetary policy is exempted.

Congressional ire at the Fed has been boiling for months, driven by such factors as the Fed's role in a series of bailouts, its regulatory failures that contributed to the financial crisis and its secrecy. Many lawmakers even aim to strip the Fed of its power to regulate banks, an idea that Bernanke is fighting.

In his semiannual testimony on monetary policy, Bernanke's conciliatory approach appeared to soothe some tensions, as the tone was much more civil than in his other recent congressional appearances. Eight members of Congress congratulated him on his confirmation to a second four-year term last month. The wildly unpopular bailout of American International Group, for which he has regularly been pilloried, was mentioned only three times during the four-hour hearing. In comparable testimony last July, it came up 17 times.

Critics have long complained that the Fed will not disclose the names of banks and other institutions that borrow money through special programs set up during the financial crisis. Fed leaders have argued that if the information were disclosed, it would cause firms to avoid using the special facilities for fear of being stigmatized. The special programs would therefore be less effective.

Bernanke told the House committee that the Fed is "prepared to support legislation that would require the release of the identities of the firms that participated in each special facility after an appropriate delay." He added, "It is important that the release occur after a lag that is sufficiently long that investors will not view an institution's use of one of the facilities as a possible indication of ongoing financial problems."

Compromise, to a point

With the proposal, Bernanke seemed to be offering a compromise to lawmakers who would prefer requiring immediate and complete disclosure of the beneficiaries of Fed programs. He did hold out an exception, arguing that loans from the "discount window" -- an emergency lending program for banks that has been a key function of the Fed throughout its 97-year history -- should not be subject to disclosure, even with a delay.

"We think it's very important to keep the names of the borrowers confidential, and the reason is that banks will only come to the discount window in a period of crisis or panic, and if they believe that their names will be revealed, that that would indeed, in fact, intensify the crisis or panic," Bernanke said.

Similarly, Bernanke endorsed allowing Congress, through the Government Accountability Office, to review much of the Fed's operations. But he included a major exception: monetary policy, such as decisions on interest rates, which he has long argued must remain independent from congressional meddling.

"We would support legislation authorizing the GAO to audit the operational integrity, collateral policies, use of third-party contractors, accounting, financial reporting and internal controls of these special credit and liquidity facilities," Bernanke said. But, he added, "it is vital that the conduct of monetary policy continue to be insulated from short-term political pressures."

Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) has proposed GAO audits of all Fed activities, including monetary policy, and his legislation has been co-signed by a majority of House members and was included in financial regulatory reform legislation passed by the House.

"I get that question asked almost everywhere I go: Where are we at in terms of auditing the Fed?" Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) said at the hearing.

There are more mixed views on such a policy in the Senate, where financial regulatory reform has bogged down in recent months.

A path forward

Bernanke also made the case that the Fed is reworking its bank regulation to make it more effective, even absent congressional action to restructure supervision of financial institutions.

"We have been conducting an intensive self-examination of our regulatory and supervisory responsibilities and have been actively implementing improvements," Bernanke said.

He added that the Fed is working with regulators overseas to toughen capital and liquidity requirements on large, international banks. And, he said, Fed officials are working to improve coordination among bank supervisors and are merging bank supervision with other economic analysis to take a broader view of risks to the economy.

There was extensive discussion of the nation's fiscal situation, with Bernanke urging lawmakers to craft a path to lower budget deficits. That clarity, he argued, would have benefits today by keeping interest rates low.

"It would be very helpful, even to the current recovery, to markets' confidence, if there were a sustainable, credible plan for a fiscal exit, if you will," the Fed chairman said.

Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner articulated similar ideas to the House Budget Committee on Wednesday, saying, "We need to make sure also that Americans and investors around the world have confidence that once we have sustained growth in place, that we're going to bring down these unsustainable deficits."

In effect, both officials are urging Congress to develop plans to get budget deficits down in the coming years, even as they forestall the implementation of those plans to keep the economic downturn from getting worse.

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