WASHINGTON — Though the Federal Reserve Board remains the leading candidate to assume oversight of systemically risky firms, two Senate votes last week demanding that the central bank hand over details about its activities demonstrated its waning political support.
Lawmakers have been critical of the Fed since the financial crisis took hold in 2007, with leaders of both parties saying it could have done more to stop the housing collapse.
But last week's votes went well beyond criticism and appeared to be the first effort by lawmakers to dictate operations at the central bank. The amendments would force the Fed to disclose the identities of discount window borrowers and to reveal more information about its financial rescue programs.
"At least since the late Reagan era, the federal government has kept its hands off the Fed and has respected its independence," said Chris Low, the chief economist for First Horizon National Corp.'s FTN Financial. "This is the first attack on that independence that we've seen in the legislature."
The amendments, which were attached to the Senate budget resolution, are nonbinding and appeared to be meant largely as a message to the central bank.
The Senate voted 96 to 2 in favor of an amendment requiring the Fed to disclose how many institutions have participated in its liquidity facilities, detail the collateral it is accepting in return for access and reveal how much it is working with outside contractors to manage the facilities. The amendment, sponsored by Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd, D-Conn., and Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the panel's top Republican, was meant to address growing anger at the Fed while not thwarting its efforts to lend.
Observers were surprised that an amendment from Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Jim Bunning, R-Ky., also passed by a vote of 59 to 39. It would require the Fed to publish details on all its lending efforts, including recipients of funds distributed through the discount window — a move the Fed has adamantly opposed in the past.
At the heart of the matter is a growing lack of trust in the Fed as the financial crisis continues, according to observers.
"The bottom line is that the Fed has lent out some $2.2 trillion, and the American people and members of Congress do not know which financial institutions have received that money or what the exact terms of those transactions are," Sen. Sanders said during the debate on his amendment. "It is basically absurd that $2.2 trillion is at risk without us knowing who has received that money."
Congressional oversight of discount window loans would be not without precedent. In the aftermath of the savings and loan crisis, the House Banking Committee subpoenaed data on all insured depository institutions that borrowed from the discount window from Jan. 1, 1985 to May 10, 1991.
The current amendments may be nonbinding, but the wide support they enjoyed could signal that actual legislation is in the offing, observers said.
The "sense of Congress often indicates the direction Congress wants to go with legislation," said Bert Ely, an independent consultant in Alexandria, Va. "That's why this is an early warning signal that the Fed is starting to get on thin political ice and could end up losing much of its autonomy."
An important question is how the votes will affect the debate over establishing the Fed as a systemic risk regulator.
House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank has backed giving those powers to the Fed, but the Obama administration has remained ostensibly neutral on the question. Dodd and Shelby have expressed reservations about giving the central bank more power.
"If 59 members voted to disclose the names of those using the discount window, you think they are going to become the uber-systemic risk regulator?" asked one Senate aide, who requested not to be identified by name or party affiliation. "The Fed is incredibly weakened."
In an e-mail to American Banker, Bunning argued that the votes were a clear sign Congress will not give more power to the Fed.
The central bank "is no longer independent," he said. "They are engaging in fiscal policy and acting as an arm of the Treasury Department by helping Treasury get around asking Congress for more money. The votes in the Senate … demonstrate that the Senate is not going to go along with the idea of giving the Fed more regulatory powers, and Congress is going to demand more accountability from the Fed and the beneficiaries of the Fed's secret bailouts and subsidies."
So far no credible alternative to making the Fed a systemic risk regulator has emerged. Frank has said creating another agency from scratch would take too long, and whether that agency would be able to do the job as well is unclear.
Still, the votes indicate that any bill giving the Fed more power might also come with added restrictions. At the very least, Congress is likely to require the Fed to work with other regulators if it gains power to oversee large institutions, observers said.
Some said they would be cautious in reading too much into the Senate votes. Since they were nonbinding, some lawmakers may have viewed this as an easy way to register sympathy with the populist anger against bailout recipients; had the votes been binding, lawmakers may have reacted differently. "The vote is more a response to the electorate," another Senate aide said.
But the amendments themselves were a new — and potentially dangerous — direction for Congress to take. This was the first time lawmakers tried to oversee activities on the Fed's balance sheet, effectively involving themselves in monetary policy.
Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner have reiterated the importance of independence, but some observers say the central bank invited more intervention.
For one thing, Bernanke initially fought efforts to name the counterparties of American International Group Inc.
"He thought that if you did it for AIG, then why not in this situation or that situation?" Ely said. "This gets to be a real slippery slope."
But some said Bernanke lost credibility when AIG released the names of its counterparties on its own.
Others said the Fed gave Congress an opening to meddle by increasingly working with the White House and the Treasury Department to stabilize the markets.
"Has the Fed, by the manner in which it has gotten involved and by the degree to which it has partnered with and answered to Treasury, compromised its independence?" asked Joshua Rosner, the managing director of Graham Fisher & Co. "The answer is yes. Unfortunately, by having done so, it has invited Congress to be more involved in the functions of the central bank."
Joseph Mason, a professor of banking at Louisiana State University, said the Fed's involvement in the bailout programs has "increased the politicization of their activities, and this is a manifestation of Congress' new attitude toward their control and involvement with the Fed."