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Is The Fed Chair Succession Too Politicized?


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. There was once a time when naming a new Federal Reserve chairman was a non-event. Well, not this time. The competition between supporters for former Treasury secretary Larry Summers and the current vice chairman of the Fed, Janet Yellen has been a highly public affair.

As NPR's John Ydstie reports, there's concern that the high profile discussion could politicize the Fed succession in a way that could ultimately hurt the economy.

JOHN YDSTIE, BYLINE: This week, the president of the Dallas Federal Reserve, Richard Fisher, told a group of Texas bankers that the White House has mishandled the process of choosing a successor to Ben Bernanke. Fisher said picking a new Fed chairman should not become a public debate. Alan Blinder, himself a former vice chairman of the Fed, agrees that the White House stumbled.

ALAN BLINDER: Now was that all the White House's fault? No, of course not. Lots of other people were involved in the fray. But I think the whole thing could've been handled a lot more artfully.

YDSTIE: Blinder says President Obama's apparent desire to nominate Larry Summers got leaked probably as a trial balloon to measure opposition and support.

BLINDER: And that trial balloon attracted a lot of fire. It made the process into a public spectacle of the way that it's never been before.

YDSTIE: Blinder, who's now a professor at Princeton, was himself drawn in. He wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece in support of Yellen. And a large group of Senate Democrats wrote a letter to the White House supporting her. There was also public criticism of Summers for, among other things, his role in deregulating the financial system.

Then, at a news conference back in August, President Obama felt the need to defend Summers, his former top economic advisor from what he called...

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: A bunch of attacks that I was hearing on Mr. Summers preemptively which is sort of a standard Washington exercise that I don't like.

YDSTIE: Ultimately, Summers withdrew his name from consideration, citing a desire to avoid an acrimonious confirmation fight. And the president has yet to make a nomination. While the contentious process is unusual, it also follows Ben Bernanke's second confirmation which came in the wake of the financial crisis. Thirty members of the Senate voted against him.

Blinder says he's concerned this might be the start of the Bork-ing of Fed nominations, a reference to the brutal political battle over President Reagan's nomination of Robert Bork for a seat on the Supreme Court.

BLINDER: Congress' rejection of Bork changed the nomination process for Supreme Court justices forever.

YDSTIE: Blinder does take some comfort from the fact that the fight over Summers and Yellen was largely an interparty Democratic fight, not a partisan one. But he says the rising political stakes are not surprising, given the Feds extraordinary role in fighting the financial crisis.

Former Fed Governor Randy Kroszner agrees.

RANDY KROSZNER: The Fed went from being something that was on the front page of the business section to being on the front page of the newspaper.

YDSTIE: Kroszner, who is now a professor at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business, warns that politicizing the process could be dangerous. He and Blinder agree the Fed needs to be free to make the best economic policy, even if it's politically unpopular in the short term.

KROSZNER: Generally, the outcomes of central bank policy are better when there's more of a distance between the central bank and the political actors. So historically, more dependent central banks have generally been more effective at avoiding high inflation.

YDSTIE: So imagine what might happen if Janet Yellen became the chairman and felt beholden to supporters who wanted her to worry less about inflation. Kroszner also worries that a bruising confirmation process could discourage well qualified nominees.

KROSZNER: That would be extremely unfortunate to lose good candidates because the process is not a good one.

YDSTIE: But Blinder is not too concerned about that. He says those who are qualified know it's the most powerful economic policy job in the world.

BLINDER: So I doubt that many people are going to look at that and say I don't want to go there just because the confirmation might be tough.

YDSTIE: Blinder says he only hopes that years from now, when it's time to nominate another Fed chairman, the central bank will again have a much lower political profile. John Ydstie, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ydstie has covered the economy, Wall Street, and the Federal Reserve at NPR for nearly three decades. Over the years, NPR has also employed Ydstie's reporting skills to cover major stories like the aftermath of Sept. 11, Hurricane Katrina, the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, and the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. He was a lead reporter in NPR's coverage of the global financial crisis and the Great Recession, as well as the network's coverage of President Trump's economic policies. Ydstie has also been a guest host on the NPR news programs Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. Ydstie stepped back from full-time reporting in late 2018, but plans to continue to contribute to NPR through part-time assignments and work on special projects.