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Juvenal’s Greatest Poser: “Who Will Guard the Federal Reserve?”

[This article was first published in the New York Sun.]

“Who will guard these guardians?” That poser of Juvenal, satirist of Rome, is an immortal question — nowhere more pertinent, though, than in deciding who should oversee the Federal Reserve. In the Fed, we have supposed guardians of stable prices who have decided by themselves to create perpetual inflation.

Just to mark the point: Guardians of the currency have  decided by themselves to depreciate it forever. Guardians of financial stability have rendered themselves technically insolvent with negative capital now at more than $100 billion. Guardians who cannot make reliable economic forecasts are tirelessly claiming that they should be “independent.”

What total nonsense.  No part of our Constitutional government should be independent of the checks and balances that are part of the Founding scheme and must apply to all its parts. It is naturally the burning desire of every government bureaucracy to be independent of the elected representatives, but the idea that the Fed is “independent” is stated nowhere in the Federal Reserve Act.  

Displaying the contrary idea, the original Act made the Secretary of the Treasury automatically the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. A notable description from Fed history is that the Fed has “independence within the government” — something different from being independent. All — 100 percent — of the monetary powers granted in the Constitution to the government are granted to Congress.

It is well past due for Congress to start getting serious about oversight of the Fed within the government by promptly passing two pending bills:  “The Federal Reserve Transparency Act,” reintroduced by Senator Rand Paul, and the “Federal Reserve Loss Transparency Act,” reintroduced by Congressman French Hill. Enacting these mutually consistent bills would be a big step forward.  

The “Transparency Act,” which was previously passed by the House in 2014 with the overwhelming vote of 333 to 92, is commonly known as “Audit the Fed.”  It is about far more than a financial audit of the books, however, as important such audits are.  It is really about giving Congress the knowledge to carry out serious oversight.  As Senator Paul recently wrote, “transparency and oversight of every government institution is imperative.” 

The “Loss Transparency Act” would put Congress in a better position to understand the Fed’s own finances. It would do so by the obviously sensible requirement that the Fed’s balance sheet must apply Generally Accepted Accounting Principles. The bill would also, with admirable common sense, prohibit the Fed from paying the expenses of an unrelated agency while the Fed itself is losing $114 billion a year.

The profound questions of what kind of money is right for our country, including whether the Fed is empowered to create perpetual inflation rather than stable prices, are not decisions that may be made unilaterally by the Fed. And invite only more questions. If perpetual inflation, at what rate? If stable prices, how to ensure sound money? These are inherently political questions. It is hubristic of the Fed to imagine it has the authority to make such decisions. Let it bring formal recommendations to the Congress.

The Fed has an ever-recurring tendency to create inflations, asset price bubbles, systemic risk, and the ensuing painful corrections, because it combines great power with demonstrated, and inescapable, inability to foretell the financial future.  This combination makes it “the most dangerous financial institution in the world.” It needs serious oversight by and substantive interaction with elected representatives of the people who have made themselves expert in central banking questions.

So who should guard the Fed in the constitutional system of checks and balances?  The answer is Congress, with its unambiguous power over money questions clearly designated in the fifth clause of the Constitution’s Article I, Section 8. Congress needs to revise the laws to ensure effective oversight and to organize itself to be the required guardian of the people’s money and the central bank. 

In my opinion, this should include both the Senate and the House banking committees having a subcommittee devoted exclusively to oversight of the Fed, which is the central bank not only to the United States, but to the entire dollar-using world, and to its dominant credit, money and capital markets, and moreover has huge effects on the daily life of the American people by its debasement of the currency.

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