Two key lawmakers on the House Financial Services Committee, Reps. Alan Grayson (D-FL) and Ron Paul (R-TX), are pushing to authorize a full, comprehensive audit of the Federal Reserve. The plan has sparked fury from both the Fed and the corporate banking industry, but the proposal is so appealing that the controversy is almost laughable.
The Federal Reserve is one of the most powerful economic institutions in the world, but most of its operations are conducted in total secrecy. The Fed's rescue activities have dwarfed the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, but without any public accounting. Some of these efforts may have been entirely appropriate, but we don't even know who the Fed is helping. That fact is a major barrier to establishing effective and fair economic policy.
As Glenn Greenwald observes for Salon:
"The Fed is a typical Washington institution that operates un-democratically and in virtually total secrecy, and a Congressionally-mandated audit that they (and much of the DC establishment) desperately oppose would be a serious step towards changing the dynamic of how things function. At the very least, it would provide an important template for defeating the interests which, in Washington, almost never lose."
Under the Grayson-Paul plan, which is offered as an amendment to the Financial Stability Improvement Act of 2009, the Government Accountability Office would be given the authority to audit all of the Federal Reserve's activities, just as it can audit other public programs and institutions.
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Last week, the House Financial Services Committee approved the audit-the-fed bill, despite opposition from panel Chairman Barney Frank (D-MA), who tried to gut the plan. Even on the Financial Services Committee, where the banks concentrate their campaign contributions, Grayson was able to convince 14 other Democrats to stand up to the financial establishment.
The vote of approval scarcely registered on mainstream media's radar, and even then, the Grayson-Paul legislation was portrayed as an assault on the Fed's "political independence." As Dean Baker notes for Talking Points Memo, it's hard to see how a simple, public accounting can be construed as a political hit on the Fed's policy-making.
By setting interest rates, the Fed has enormous power to do almost anything under the economic sun, from fueling quick growth to destroying jobs. All of these powers have useful functions under the right circumstances, and we really don't want Congress to make decisions about the economy based on the interests of powerful lobby groups. The Grayson-Paul bill wouldn't do anything of the sort. As John Nichols explains for The Nation, audits of sensitive economic policy decisions would be subject to a six-month lag before they could be publicly released. If the Fed needs to act fast, Congress won't be able to get in its way. The public will eventually know how its own money is being spent, however, and learn how a public institution is conducting itself.
"In other words, this is about simple transparency, which everyone should favor," Nichols writes.
The White House and the Congressional Democratic leadership need to support a full and comprehensive audit of the Federal Reserve. It's an issue of basic democratic accountability. There is no good reason why economic policy should be conducted in secret.