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The Supreme Court has a vacancy. The Federal Reserve has three. Anyone notice?
Given the high stakes, the lack of interest from the public, the news media and Congress is puzzling. Of course, there are structural differences between the Supreme Court and the Fed: Justices get lifetime appointments, and there are only nine seats on the court, making each individual justice more important than any single Open Market Committee member. More important, the Fed makes decisions by consensus -- there's no equivalent of a 5 to 4 decision -- and speaks with the voice of the chairman, thereby obscuring internal disagreements and reducing the visibility of the individual decision-makers.
Another part of the problem is that people simply don't understand monetary policy. Although Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke's reconfirmation in January stirred more controversy than did most of his predecessors', the extent of the debate was probably limited by the fact that so few members of Congress, journalists and citizens truly comprehend the Fed's work. Bernanke was targeted by some activists, including those at the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, who spearheaded a "Stop Bailout Ben" campaign. When I blogged that it would make more sense to mount a "Stop 10 Percent Unemployment Ben" campaign, one PCCC organizer told me that while the group had tried pitching that, there weren't enough congressional staff members who understood the issue to get any traction.
Outside the Senate banking committee, nobody in Congress seems to follow monetary policy. For many years starting in the late 1990s, John McCain liked to say that if then-Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan were to die, he should be propped up and adorned with a pair of sunglasses like the dead boss in "Weekend at Bernie's," so that he might remain at the Fed's helm. It was a revealing joke in that it reflected the extent to which elected officials not only don't know, but don't want to know, what the high priests of monetary policy are up to.
On Tuesday, Bernanke stressed the need to improve financial literacy as a core element of any effort to protect consumers. Maybe he should start on Capitol Hill instead.
Of course, I'm hardly hoping that Fed vacancies will devolve into the partisan food fights we've come to expect over Supreme Court nominations. But when it comes to the court, at least we're paying attention.
Matthew Yglesias, a political blogger and fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, is the author of "Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats."