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The Nation

Don't Cede More Economic Authority to Unaccountable Fed

The reviews are in on Barack Obama's plan to address the crisis of Wall Street speculation and casino capitalism that has dramatically increased the gap between working Americans and the rich, created pressure for the deindustrialization of the United States and depression of wages and income for workers and farmers and created a nasty banking crisis.

Though even Obama acknowledges that this is the big one –- the issue that as much as anything led Americans to elect him last fall –- his "financial overhaul plan" did not merit above-the-fold coverage on the front page of The New York Times, the country's "newspaper of record." Two stories from Tehran and one on a poll about health care reform held the top spots. The overhaul merited only a feature suggesting –- correctly -- that there was "only a hint of Roosevelt" in Obama's plan.

In other words, for the great mass of Americans there will be no new "New Deal." To be sure, there's some good stuff here: creation of a new agency to help protect consumers of "financial products" and some stronger transparency requirements, a few more rules regarding banks and mortgage-backed securities. "But," as Times writer Joe Nocera notes, "it's what the plan doesn't do that is most notable." Nocera focuses, appropriately enough, on the failure of the administration to do much about the problem –- for taxpayers and for democracy –- of banks that are "too big to fail."

But the real concern ought not be focused on what this seemingly tepid plan fails to do.

The real concern is what it does.

The plan dramatically increases the authority and reach of the Federal Reserve, an already too powerful and unaccountable institution that will -- to the delight of the administration's "Fed men": Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and administration economic adviser Lawrence Summers -- become what the Wall Street Journal says will be "the nation's most powerful financial overseer."

"The proposal, if passed into law, would represent one of the biggest changes ever in the Fed's role," explains Journal writer Sudeep Reddy. "The central bank would win power to monitor risks across the financial system, and sweeping authority to examine any firm that could threaten financial stability, even if the Fed wouldn't normally supervise the institution. The nation's biggest and most interconnected firms would be subject to heightened oversight by the central bank."

In announcing the plan, President Obama claimed "that lines of responsibility and accountability are clear" with regard to the new authority being placed in the Fed's hands.

That is a ridiculous statement.

The Fed is famously unaccountable and resistant to transparency. Even Geithner acknowledged in his Thursday morning session with the Senate Banking Committee that there is a need to look at reforming the Fed's lax governance structure.


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But don't expect Geithner of others in the administration to take a lead when it comes to fixing the Fed, an agency that zealously guards –- for logical reasons, as its track record is one of frequent missteps and failures on an epic scale. As Senate Banking Committee chair Chris Dodd said after reviewing the central bank's significant flaws, "There's not a lot of confidence in the Fed at this point, and I'm stating the obvious."

What should be obvious to everyone is that Congress needs to get a grip on the Fed –- which is structured in a manner so that it faces little or no congressional oversight -- before it allows Obama's proposal to advance.

So says Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, the dissident Democrat who responded to Obama's plan by declaring that: "Before Congress gives the Fed any new authority, we must thoroughly examine the Fed's response to our current economic crisis."

Noted Kucinich:

Since August 2007 the Fed has intervened in the economy in an extraordinary way, as a result ballooning their balance sheet from $847 billion to more than $2 trillion. Yet, we still don't know what the Fed has done or who got the money. That is why I introduced the bipartisan HR 2424, which would grant the GAO the authority to audit the Fed's response to our nation's economic crisis, a response that has dwarfed the $700 billion TARP program by more than 2 to 1.

Before we grant the Fed any new authority, we must demand greater transparency from the Fed; an earnest and open audit of the Federal Reserve's response to the economic crisis would be a significant step in the right direction. We can't continue to let the Fed operate within a black box.

Kucinich has proposed HR 2424, a piece of legislation that would amend United States Code "to authorize reviews by the Comptroller General of the United States of any credit facility established by the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System or any Federal reserve bank during the current financial crisis, and for other purposes."

Several progressive Democrats and old-right Republicans, including Texas Congressman Ron Paul, have cosponsored Kucinich's measure. Additionally, Paul has proposed H.R. 1207, which would amend the bill "to reform the manner in which the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System is audited by the Comptroller General of the United States and the manner in which such audits are reported, and for other purposes."

A majority of House members –- 234, so far, ranging from the most progressive Democrats to the most conservative Republicans -- have signed on as cosponsors of this necessary legislation.

This is one of those issues that makes sense to any honest representative, no matter what the party or what the ideology. Our elected and reasonably accountable federal officials cannot cede more control over the U.S. economy to the unelected and unaccountable Fed without auditing, reviewing and reforming how the Federal Reserve System operates.

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