The Myth of Independence: How Congress Governs the Federal Reserve

The Myth of Independence: How Congress Governs the Federal Reserve

by Sarah Binder, Mark Spindel

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Born out of crisis a century ago, the Federal Reserve has become the most powerful macroeconomic policymaker and financial regulator in the world. The Myth of Independence traces the Fed’s transformation from a weak, secretive, and decentralized institution in 1913 to a remarkably transparent central bank a century later. Offering a unique account of Congress’s role in steering this evolution, Sarah Binder and Mark Spindel explore the Fed’s past, present, and future and challenge the myth of its independence.

Binder and Spindel argue that recurring cycles of crisis, blame, and reform propelled lawmakers to create and revamp the powers and governance of the Fed at critical junctures, including the Panic of 1907, the Great Depression, the postwar Treasury-Fed Accord, the inflationary episode of the 1970s, and the recent financial crisis. Marshaling archival sources, interviews, and statistical analyses, the authors pinpoint political and economic dynamics that shaped interactions between the legislature and the Fed, and that have generated a far stronger central bank than anticipated at its founding. The Fed today retains its unique federal style, diluting the ability of lawmakers and the president to completely centralize control of monetary policy.

In the long wake of the financial crisis, with economic prospects decidedly subpar, partisan rivals in Congress seem poised to continue battling over the Fed’s statutory mandates and the powers given to achieve them. Examining the interdependent relationship between America’s Congress and its central bank, The Myth of Independence presents critical insights about the future of monetary and fiscal policies that drive the nation’s economy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781400888566
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 08/28/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 296
Sales rank: 1,174,845
File size: 7 MB

About the Author

Sarah Binder is professor of political science at George Washington University and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Her books include Advice and Dissent and Stalemate. Mark Spindel has spent his entire career in investment management at such organizations as Salomon Brothers, the World Bank, and Potomac River Capital, a Washington D.C.--based hedge fund he started in 2007.

Read an Excerpt


Monetary Politics

When the Federal Reserve celebrated its centennial in December 2013, it bore only passing resemblance to the institution created by Democrats, Progressives, and Populists a century before. In the wake of the devastating banking Panic of 1907, a Democratic Congress and President Woodrow Wilson enacted the Federal Reserve Act of 1913, creating a decentralized system of currency and credit, and sidestepping Americans' long-standing distrust of a central bank. After the Fed failed to prevent and arguably caused the Great Depression of the 1930s, lawmakers rewrote the act, taking steps to centralize control of monetary policy in Washington, DC, while granting the Fed some independence within the government. Decades later in 2007, another global financial crisis retested the Fed's capacity to overcome policy mistakes and prevent financial collapse. Congress again responded by significantly revamping the Fed's authority, bolstering the Fed's financial regulatory responsibilities while requiring more transparency and limiting the Fed's exigent role as the lender of last resort. By the end of its first century, the Federal Reserve had become the crucial player sustaining and steering the nation's and, to a large extent, the world's economic and financial well-being — a remarkable progression given the Fed's limited institutional beginnings.

What explains the Federal Reserve's existential transformation? In this book, we explore the political and economic catalysts that fueled the development of the Fed over its first century. Economic historians have provided excellent accounts of the Fed's evolution, focusing on the successes and failures of monetary policy. Still, little has been written about why or when politicians wrestle with the Fed, each other, and the president over monetary policy, and who wins these political contests over the powers, autonomy, and governance of the Fed, or why. Moreover, in the wake of economic and financial debacles for which Congress and the public often blame the Fed, lawmakers respond paradoxically, amending the act to expand the Fed's powers and further concentrate control in Washington. Why do Congress and the president reward the Fed with new powers and punish it for poor performance? In this book, we contextualize Congress's existential role in driving the evolution of the Fed — uncovering the complex and sometimes-hidden role of Congress in historical efforts to construct, sustain, and reform the Federal Reserve.

By concentrating on Congress's relationship with the Fed, we challenge the most widely held tenet about the modern Fed: central bankers independently craft monetary policy, free from short-term political interference. Instead, we suggest that Congress and the Fed are interdependent. From atop Capitol Hill, Congress depends on the Fed to both steer the economy and absorb public blame when the economy falters. Indeed, over the Fed's first century, Congress has delegated increasing degrees of responsibility to the Fed for managing the nation's economy. But by centralizing power in the hands of the Fed, lawmakers can more credibly blame the Fed for poor economic outcomes, insulating themselves electorally and potentially diluting public anger at Congress.

In turn, the Fed remains dependent on legislative support. Because lawmakers frequently have revised the Federal Reserve Act over its first century, central bankers (despite claims of independence) recognize that Congress circumscribes the Fed's alleged policy autonomy. Fed power — and its capacity and credibility to take unpopular but necessary policy steps — is contingent on securing as well as maintaining broad political and public support. Throughout the book, we highlight the interdependence of these two institutions, exploring the political-economic logic that shapes lawmakers' periodic efforts to revamp the Fed's governing law.

The concentration of monetary control in Washington has been politically costly for the Federal Reserve, particularly in the wake of the Great Recession and continuing into the 2016 presidential campaign. Beginning in 2008, the Fed's DC-based Board of Governors vastly expanded the breadth of monetary policy. The Fed extended and stretched its emergency lending powers, purchased unprecedented levels of government, mortgage, and other debt, and more generally, played a critical role in the selective extension of credit to US industry and finance — often working closely with the US Treasury and Federal Reserve Bank of New York (one of the Fed's twelve regional reserve banks that share power with the Board to make monetary policy). Those choices, which at one point more than quadrupled the size of the Fed's balance sheet, reinserted the Fed into the midst of political discussions about fiscal policy, and more existentially, how far and in what ways the central bank should intervene to prevent and contain financial crises as well as bolster economic growth.

By extending credit to specific institutions and demographic cohorts, the Fed's actions during and after the 2007 crisis blurred the line between monetary and fiscal policy, making the central bank a target of critics across the ideological spectrum, tarnishing its reputation. Over 90 percent of respondents in public opinion polls in the late 1990s during the "Great Moderation" (a nearly quarter-century period of low and stable inflation) applauded the performance of the Federal Reserve as either excellent or good. As shown in figure 1.1, less than a third of the public approved of the Fed at the height of the Great Recession a decade later in 2009. Even the perennially hated Internal Revenue Service polled higher. Liberals and conservatives criticized the lack of transparency surrounding the Fed's emergency lending programs. Conservatives objected to the Fed's large-scale asset purchases (LSAPs), on the unproven grounds that the Fed was foolishly stoking inflation. And while many Democrats welcomed the Fed's focus on reducing unemployment, Republicans pushed for eliminating the employment component of the Fed's dual mandate — a bank-friendly move that would force the Fed to concentrate exclusively on price stability.

Intense partisan and ideological criticism of the Fed made it harder for President Barack Obama to secure Senate confirmation of his appointments to the Fed, even after Democrats in November 2013 revamped Senate procedures to allow simple majorities to block filibusters of Obama's nominees. Nor did the judiciary defer to the Federal Reserve: the Supreme Court in 2010 refused to come to the defense of the central bank when Bloomberg News sued to force disclosure of the identities of borrowers from the Fed's discount window. And in the 2016 presidential campaign, Republican nominee Donald J. Trump accused chair Janet Yellen and the Federal Reserve of playing politics with interest rates — claiming that she was doing the bidding of the White House to help elect Trump's opponent (Davidson 2016). In short, the Fed's autonomy was put at risk in the wake of the global financial crisis and afterward as the Fed faced tough choices about how to respond to the crisis and roll back its unconventional efforts as the economy improved. Even years after the crisis, lawmakers and market participants continue to scrutinize the Fed as it decides how to tighten monetary policy. How the Fed balances conflicting demands from politicians and industry against both its own preferences and a unique, dual mandate from Congress to maximize employment and keep inflation at bay will shape the reputation, power, and effectiveness of the Fed in its second century.

The Political Transformation of the Fed

The image of the Federal Reserve as a body of technocratic experts belies the political nature of the institution. By defining the Fed as political, we do not mean that the Fed's policy choices are politicized. To be sure, policy making within the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) is rarely a matter of applying partisan prescriptions to generate appropriate monetary policy, although accusations as such are common. Given internal frictions, especially during times of economic stress, the Fed chair faces the challenge of building a coalition within (and beyond) the FOMC to support a preferred policy outcome, akin to committee or party leaders in Congress, or Supreme Court justices working to secure majorities for proposals or opinions. Former Fed chair Ben S. Bernanke once described a central challenge of leading the Fed in precisely this way: "In Washington or any other political context you have to think about: how can you sell what you want to do to others who are involved in the process" (Dubner 2015). That said, the Fed is not just another partisan body reflecting the views of the presidents who appoint the Board of Governors in Washington or boards of directors who select the Fed's reserve bank presidents who then vote on monetary policy. Decision making inside the Fed surely involves technocratic, macroeconomic policy expertise, even within a political institution.

We deem the Fed "political" because successive generations of legislators have made and later remade the Federal Reserve System to reflect temporal, political, and economic priorities. Most important, because the Fed is a product of and operates within the political system, its power derives from and depends on the support of elected officials. Institutions are political not because they are permeated by partisan decision making but rather because political forces endow them with the power to exercise public authority on behalf of a diverse and at times polarized nation.

The Fed is an enduring political institution — its powers, organization, and governance evolving markedly over its first century. As such, the Fed is similar to many institutions that "have been around long enough to have outlived, not just their designers and the social coalitions on which they were founded, but also the external conditions of the time of their foundation" (Streek and Thelen 2005, 28). Given the difficulty of eliminating organizations once they are embedded in statute, political actors often try to adapt old rules and authorities to new purposes or to meet new demands (Pierson 2004). Indeed, reformers frequently target old organizations mismatched to new environments by seeking to remold them for new times. In other words, bureaucracies originally created to address past sets of interests can be transformed to serve the purposes of newly empowered coalitions. Old institutions become proving grounds for politicians eager to secure their policy goals without having to invest time and resources creating new organizations from scratch.

The Federal Reserve offers a prime example of historical "conversion" (Streek and Thelen 2005, 26), or more colloquially, "mission creep." Democrats and Populists in 1913 placed high priority on devising a reserve system that would address the needs of the credit-starved, agrarian South. Creating regional reserve banks, empowering Democrats to determine where to locate the reserve banks, and providing for an "elastic currency" that would expand the money supply to meet regional as well as national credit needs served lawmakers' goals well. Importantly, Wall Street bankers no longer controlled agrarian Democrats' access to credit. The new decentralized reserve system, however, made it difficult to devise national monetary policy when banks began to fail again in the late 1920s. Innovation by the twelve district reserve banks (for example, creating an informal monetary policy committee to coordinate government debt purchases) proved insufficient during the Great Depression, leading Congress and the president to enact new banking acts in 1933 and 1935, thereby creating a more formal, system-wide monetary policy committee. The evolution of the economy, monetary theory, and the financial system — and crucially, the electoral map — all but guaranteed that future political coalitions would periodically revisit the handiwork of their predecessors. As a result, the Fed has been transformed over its long history: successive generations of politicians respond to economic downturns by battling over the appropriate authority, governance, and mission of the Fed.

In this book, we explore the Fed's political transformation. The growth of the US economy and concomitant transformation in the size, scope, and complexity of the financial system has naturally helped to expand the Fed's global economic influence. But congressional action has also made a difference. First, Congress has increasingly centralized monetary authority and power within the Federal Reserve System. Second, Congress has made the Fed more transparent and accountable to its legislative overseer. To be sure, Congress periodically clips the Fed's power and rejects centralizing reforms. But lawmakers' efforts to revamp the Fed have on balance made the Fed more powerful and more transparent. With more power, of course, comes more responsibility — allowing Congress to routinely blame the Fed for its policy failures. Below, we preview these twin transformations of the Fed and propose a political-economic theory to explain the dynamics of congressional reform of the Fed.


The 1913 Federal Reserve System was highly decentralized: twelve privately owned reserve banks operated regional "discount windows" and set their own interest rates — thereby controlling lending to member banks in their districts. The Federal Reserve Act empowered a president-appointed, Senate-confirmed Federal Reserve Board in Washington to approve the regional banks' discount rates. But as Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz (1963) documented in their history of monetary policy in the United States, the Board typically took a back seat to more assertive reserve banks, including the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Because the DC-based board did not have its own lending facility, the power to devise and implement monetary policy rested largely in the hands of the regional, district banks. We show in chapter 3 that this hybrid, public-private agreement was the price of enactment for agrarian Democrats who otherwise would have rejected a more centralized, Wall Street–dominated, national bank.

The modern Fed bears little in common with the 1913 original. The institution is significantly more centralized, and has far greater powers and responsibility than it did a century ago. At its inception, the Fed's monetary policy extended only to member banks of the Federal Reserve System. Today, the Fed's authority reaches far beyond institutions that belong to the reserve system. The twelve reserve banks retain supervisory power over member banks in their districts, but the reserve banks have lost their autonomy over regional lending decisions. Moreover, centralized open market operations long ago replaced discount window lending as the key tool for affecting national interest rates and the allocation of credit more generally. Today, the twelve reserve banks are largely local research arms that ensure the consideration of regional economic and macroprudential factors within the Federal Reserve System.

Instead, the president-appointed, Senate-confirmed, Washington-based Board of Governors dominates monetary policy making through its voting cohesion on the FOMC. Moreover, the Board exploits its so-called 13(3) emergency lender-of-last- resort powers to direct credit without the input of reserve bank presidents. The reserve bank presidents retain voting rights on the FOMC, but their representation is partial and rotating. Since 1935, only five of the FOMC's twelve voting seats are reserved for the regional reserve presidents, and since 1942, one has always been saved for the New York Fed. In other words, a cohesive and fully staffed Board of Governors can always outvote the reserve bank presidents.

Why did Congress gradually concentrate power over money and credit in Washington? When lawmakers originally drafted the Federal Reserve Act in 1913, the nation's historical aversion to a strong central bank discouraged lawmakers from centering control of monetary policy in Washington or New York City. At the time, policy makers foresaw a relatively limited role for the Fed: the new central bank's discretion would be curtailed by adherence to the gold standard — an arrangement that restricted the money supply to the nation's gold stock. As we explore in chapter 3, a decentralized reserve system was the opponents' price for creating a central bank. Lawmakers thus gave the Fed only limited lending powers, placing control of credit into the hands of regional financial agents, thereby institutionalizing access to credit beyond the nation's power centers. To centralize and empower the Fed, lawmakers ultimately would have to unravel the compromise that lay at the heart of the original Federal Reserve Act.


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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix
List of Tables xi
Acknowledgments xiii
1 Monetary Politics 1
2 The Blame Game 26
3 Creating the Federal Reserve 52
4 Opening the Act in the Wake of the Depression 82
5 Midcentury Modern Central Banking 124
6 The Great Inflation and the Limits of Independence 165
7 The Only Game in Town 201
8 The Myth of Independence 232
Notes 241
References 259
Index 275

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