Ron Paul’s audit-the-Fed bill advances

The House Oversight Committee easily cleared legislation Wednesday that would require a top-to-bottom audit of the Federal Reserve.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), was advanced by the committee on a bipartisan voice vote with no vocal opposition.

The measure, which has garnered 257 co-sponsors from both parties, would require the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to conduct a full audit of the Fed's operations, including its monetary policy deliberations, for the first time.

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House GOP leaders have signaled that the audit bill would garner floor attention sometime in July. A similar measure from Paul — a long-time opponent of the central bank and author of End the Fed — was initially part of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law that passed the House. The final provision in the law required a GAO study of the Fed's emergency lending operations during the financial crisis, and the potential for conflicts of interest on the boards of the regional Fed banks.

Before the audit bill cleared the oversight committee on Wednesday, ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) attempted to introduce an amendment that would prevent the GAO from auditing the Fed's deliberations on monetary policy. Cummings withdrew the amendment after Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) voiced opposition, saying it "essentially guts this bill."

Issa maintained it was ironic that Congress took an intense interest in the $2 billion and counting in losses suffered recently by JPMorgan Chase when it "pales in comparison" to the Fed's multi-trillion dollar portfolio.

"It is long past time for a real audit," he said.

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has previously opposed congressional attempts to audit the Fed's monetary policy deliberations, saying it would expose the politically independent institution to lawmaker pressure.

Meanwhile, the Fed has sought to ramp up its public outreach, with Bernanke holding regular press conferences following policy decisions, and highlighting on its website how the central bank's activities are reviewed by independent auditors and investigators.

Republicans have become increasingly critical of the Fed's expansionary policies following the economic downturn, warning that its massive expansion of its balance sheet poses serious inflation risks. 

Liberal Democrats have also ramped up criticism of the central bank, taking it on for bailing out huge financial institutions during the financial crisis. Most recently, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) launched a campaign to remove banking officials from the boards of the regional Fed banks, saying it presents a conflict of interest.

Liberal Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), a member of the oversight panel, also expressed support for the audit bill on Wednesday.

Attention on the Federal Reserve is growing amid signs that the recovery has stalled. With lawmakers dug in on major economic and fiscal issues, speculation is swirling that the Fed might act to step in and try to boost the economy.

The Fed has kept interest rates near zero for years, and has said it expects to do so through the end of 2014. It has also purchased hundreds of billions in securities, as well as reoriented its portfolio to load up on longer-term debt in further attempts to lower borrowing costs and spur the economy.

Most recently, the Fed announced it would extend the latter effort, dubbed "Operation Twist," through the end of the year. 

Following the dismal May jobs report, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has refused to take any policy options off the table, though he has repeatedly said the central bank needs help from lawmakers to boost the economy.

— This story was updated at 1:36 p.m.