WASHINGTON - By Tim Ahmann
Rep. Barney Frank, the chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Financial Services Committee, said he plans legislation to restrict the Federal Reserve's emergency lending powers and subject the central bank to a "complete audit."
At a recent town hall meeting, Frank said the House would pass a bill to use an audit to crack open the central bank's books more widely, but in a way that will not encroach on the central bank's monetary policy independence.
In addition, he said the House would move to rein in the authority that allows the Fed to lend to a wide range of non-bank firms in "unusual and exigent circumstances."
A bill sponsored by Texas Republican Rep. Ron Paul that would allow the Government Accountability Office, a federal watchdog agency, to audit Fed interest-rate decisions has won the co-sponsorship of more than half of the House.
Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has warned that the bill would compromise the U.S. central bank's policy-making independence and could undermine financial markets and the economy.
Frank said he has been working with Paul on compromise language. "He agrees that we don't want to have the audit appear as if it is influencing monetary policy because that would be inflationary," Frank told constituents. A video of his remarks was posted on the popular video file-sharing website YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J2DX9Iu4wNo .
Steven Adamske, a spokesman for Frank, told Reuters compromise language had not yet been written. He provided no further details. A spokesman for Paul could not be reached.
Frank said the audit and emergency lending provisions would be incorporated in broader legislation to revamp U.S. financial regulation that would likely pass the House in October. By seeking a compromise with Paul, Frank could strengthen the broader legislation's chance at passage.
As chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, Frank is a key player in the effort to overhaul U.S. financial regulation.
The Obama administration has proposed giving the Fed responsibility for overseeing firms whose collapse could endanger the entire financial system. At the same time, it wants to strip the central bank of its consumer protection function, and invest that authority in a new agency.
Frank expressed unease at what he called the Fed's power to "lend money to anybody they want" in emergency circumstances. "We are going to curtail that lending power. We are going to put some restraints on it," he said.
Since the financial crisis struck two years, the Fed has used this emergency authority to prop up a number of non-bank financial firms with billions of dollars in loans, including insurer American International Group.
The Fed's actions have angered many lawmakers who are concerned the central bank has put taxpayer money at risk. Fed officials have defended their actions as necessary to prevent a deeper credit crisis and widespread damage to the economy.
Bernanke, who President Barack Obama nominated this week to serve a second four-year term at the helm of the central bank, told lawmakers in July that the Fed understands the need to be accountable to taxpayers but that monetary policy decisions needed to be shielded from political interference.
In congressional testimony on July 22, he signaled a willingness to work toward a middle ground. "We are quite willing to work with Congress to try to figure out exactly where the line should be," he said.
Frank said the House legislation would pave the way for an audit to look into what the central bank "buys and sells," but he said the data would be released after a period of several months to avoid impacting financial markets.
Bernanke is widely expected to win needed Senate backing for a new term as Fed chairman, but the central bank's aggressive efforts to stem the financial crisis have stirred controversy that is likely to color his re-nomination hearing.
His current term expires on January 31, 2010.