MacroScope

Is Congress the ‘enabler’ of a loose Fed?

May 22, 2013

We heard it more than once at today’s hearing of the Joint Economic Committee featuring Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke: the central bank’s low interest rate policies are allowing Congress to delay tough decisions on long-term spending.

As U.S. senator Dan Coats asked pointedly: “Is the Fed being an enabler for an addiction Congress can’t overcome?”

Yet, if you read the subtext of Bernanke’s testimony closely, it may actually be Congress that is enabling a loose Federal Reserve.

That’s because it is the very fiscal tightening mandated by Congressional inaction that is forcing the Fed to continue stimulating growth. Chicago Fed President Charles Evans said on Tuesday the economy could be expanding as quickly as 3.5 percent were it not for the fiscal drag from Washington.

Bernanke echoed that sentiment in his testimony on Wednesday:

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the deficit reduction policies in current law will slow the pace of real GDP growth by about 1-1/2 percentage points during 2013, relative to what it would have been otherwise. In present circumstances, with short-term interest rates already close to zero, monetary policy does not have the capacity to fully offset an economic headwind of this magnitude.

His message to legislators? If you do your job, that would make it easier for me to do mine:

Congress and the administration could consider replacing some of the near-term fiscal restraint now in law with policies that reduce the federal deficit more gradually in the near term but more substantially in the longer run.

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