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Time for an Accountable Federal Reserve

Andrew Levin, professor at Dartmouth College and former special adviser to former Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke and then-Vice Chair Janet Yellen, released a proposal for reform of the Federal Reserve Board’s governing structure in a press call sponsored by the Fed Up campaign. The proposal has a number of important features, but the main point is to make the Fed more accountable to democratically elected officials and to reduce the power of the banking industry in monetary policy.

Under its current structure, the banks largely control the 12 Federal Reserve district banks. This matters because the presidents of these banks are part of the Federal Reserve Board’s Open Market Committee (FOMC) which determines monetary policy. At any point in time, five of 12 district bank presidents will be voting members of the FOMC, but all 12 take part in the discussion. The voting presidents will typically be outnumbered by the seven Federal Reserve Board governors, who are appointed by the president and approved by the Senate, although there have been just five sitting governors for the last two years, as the Senate has refused to consider President Obama’s nominees.There is no obvious reason why the banking industry should have special input into the country’s monetary policy. This would be comparable to reserving seats on the Federal Communications Commission’s board for the cable television industry. While there is no way to prevent an industry group from trying to influence a government regulatory body, in all other cases, they at least must do so from the outside. It is only the Fed where we allow the most directly affected industry group to actually have a direct voice in the policies determined by its regulatory agency.

This is an especially important issue because the Fed’s policies are so central to the health of the economy. If the Fed’s fears over inflation lead it to raise interest rates to slow the economy and reduce the rate of job creation, there is little that Congress will be able to do to counteract the Fed’s actions. For example, if the Fed wants to prevent the unemployment rate from getting below 4.5 percent unemployment, there will be little that Congress and the president can do to get unemployment lower. In that case, the Fed may have needlessly be keeping millions of people out work — disproportionately affecting minorities and less-educated workers — because of a possibly mistaken view of the economy’s limits. Furthermore, by deliberately weakening the labor market, the Fed will be keeping tens of millions of workers from having the bargaining power they need to secure wage gains.

While governors who are appointed by democratically elected officials are likely to recognize the importance of reducing unemployment and balance it against the risk of inflation, the district bank presidents are likely to be less concerned about unemployment. It is worth noting that all the dissenting votes calling for more a hawkish stance since the start of the Great Recession have been cast by bank presidents. It is likely that the need to maintain the support of the bank presidents on the FOMC has prevented the Fed from being more aggressive in trying to stimulate the economy and reduce unemployment.

It would be good to see the presidential candidates address the proposal put forward by Levin and the Fed Up campaign. There are very few areas of government that are more important in people’s daily lives than the Fed’s monetary policy. It literally determines how many people will hold jobs and has a huge effect on workers’ wages.

While it would not be appropriate for the president or other politicians to try to micromanage monetary policy, they certainly should be setting its general course. This is analogous to the relationship with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). No one expects Congress or the president to decide which drugs get approved; however, if the FDA were to allow two years to pass in which it approved no new drugs, it would be entirely appropriate for Congress and the president to question its conduct. The same would apply if the FDA were found to regularly approve drugs that turned out to be harmful.

In the case of the Fed, it is appropriate for the presidential candidates to be telling voters what sort of people they would appoint to the Fed. It is also appropriate for them to comment on its governance structure, which can only be changed by an Act of Congress, which would have to be signed by the president.

This article originally appeared in The Hill.

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Dean Baker is a macroeconomist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC. He previously worked as a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute and an assistant professor at Bucknell University.

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