Fed chief basks in bipartisan praise as lawmakers dismiss Trump attacks

Fed chief basks in bipartisan praise as lawmakers dismiss Trump attacks
© Greg Nash

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell found a safe harbor on Capitol Hill from President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump conversation with foreign leader part of complaint that led to standoff between intel chief, Congress: report Pelosi: Lewandowski should have been held in contempt 'right then and there' Trump to withdraw FEMA chief nominee: report MORE’s blistering attacks on the central bank and its chief. 

In back-to-back appearances before congressional committees Wednesday and Thursday, Powell won praise from lawmakers in both parties amid Trump’s escalating criticism and threats over his job.

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Powell, a Republican first appointed to the Fed by former President Obama in 2012, enjoyed wide bipartisan support when Trump tapped him to lead the central bank in 2017. The president has since soured on his hand-picked Fed chairman, accusing Powell of restraining the economy and impeding his trade agenda. 

Republicans have been loathe to denounce Trump as he rips Powell and pressures the Fed to cut interest rates. While few GOP lawmakers endorse Trump’s attacks, most have accepted or defended the president’s right to criticize the central bank. 

But Powell himself enjoyed an impressive amount of bipartisan support at his Wednesday and Thursday appearances before the House Financial Services and Senate Banking committees respectively.

Lawmakers hailed Powell for leading the central bank with transparency and integrity, fending off Trump’s claims that “we don't have a Fed that knows what they're doing.”

“You've done an outstanding job,” said Sen. Pat ToomeyPatrick (Pat) Joseph ToomeyNSA improperly collected US phone records in October, new documents show Overnight Defense: Pick for South Korean envoy splits with Trump on nuclear threat | McCain blasts move to suspend Korean military exercises | White House defends Trump salute of North Korean general WH backpedals on Trump's 'due process' remark on guns MORE (R-Pa.), one of the fiercest critics of the Fed’s post-crisis monetary policy. “You were able to normalize from this very strange experiment, and here we are with some terrific consequences.”

Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezAs NFIP reauthorization deadline looms, Congress must end lethal subsidies Senate Democrats warn Trump: Don't invite Putin to G-7 Pelosi warns Mnuchin to stop 'illegal' .3B cut to foreign aid MORE (N.J.), a senior Banking Committee Democrat, praised Powell for rebuffing Trump’s repeated insistence that he can fire the chairman, even though legal experts and Fed watchers disagree. 

“I don't always think the Fed gets things right. But our system is infinitely superior to one where the president dictates interest rates, especially when we're heading into elections,” Menendez said. “I think I speak for all of my colleagues and I say that we applaud your efforts to keep the Federal Reserve as an independent and nonpartisan institution.”

Powell faces a careful balancing act as he and the Fed seek to extended a record-breaking stretch of economic growth: making the case for a potential interest rate cut while asserting the bank's independence from Trump.

Trump has called on the Fed to cut interest rates and bashed the bank for hiking them four times in 2018. 

“We're paying a lot of interest and it's unnecessary, but we don't have a Fed that knows what they're doing,” Trump said Friday. 

Powell has largely waived off Trump’s attacks while insisting he would not vacate the chairmanship if the president tried to fire him or demote him. His resilience won him accolades from lawmakers, even those who spar with Powell on policy.

Rep. Maxine WatersMaxine Moore WatersBipartisan housing finance reform on the road less taken Manufacturing group leads coalition to urge Congress to reauthorize Ex-Im Bank Democrats' impeachment message leads to plenty of head-scratching MORE (D-Calif.), chairwoman of Financial Services Committee, set the tone Wednesday when she asked Powell what he would do if Trump told him to step down.

After Powell responded, “Of course, I would not do that,” Waters jokingly replied, “I can’t hear you,” sparking laughter in the committee room and drawing a grin from the often stoic Fed chairman.

“The law clearly gives me a four-year term and I fully intended to serve it,” Powell added.

“I hope everybody heard that,” Waters responded. 

The next day, Toomey praised Powell for saying he won’t leave the Fed until his term runs out, even as Trump floats firing him.

“I'm glad to hear that that's your conclusion, in part because I do think it's important that the Fed remain insulated from political pressure,” Toomey said before praising Powell’s efforts to bring near-zero interest rates toward a neutral level.

Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerSenate Democrats introduce legislation to limit foreign interference in elections Navy acknowledges footage of 'unidentified' flying objects California Law to rebuild middle class shows need for congressional action MORE (D-Va.), a leading Banking panel moderate, said he was “proud” to be one of the 84 senators who voted to confirm Powell as chairman in January 2018.

And Sen. Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyLawmakers run into major speed bumps on spending bills Senate Democrats block government spending bill Senate Democrats demand wall-free spending allocation MORE (R-Ala.) praised Powell for his “work to keep the Federal Reserve independent of both parties.”

“We salute you for that,” Shelby added. 

Powell’s bipartisan appeal is largely due to his frequent visits to Capitol Hill and his open lines of communication. Lawmakers often say Powell meets with them far more frequently than his predecessors did, and analyses of his schedules back up that conclusion.

Powell can often be spotted darting between meetings in the House and Senate, accompanied by a phalanx of security and a thick binder. A former Treasury Department official, Powell is familiar with garnering congressional support and pledged to wear Capitol carpets thin by meeting with lawmakers.

Powell’s moderate stances and unique position as an appointee of both Obama and Trump have helped endear him to a wide swath of lawmakers. 

Powell voted lockstep with his Democratic predecessor, former Fed Chair Janet YellenJanet Louise YellenWhat economic recession? Think of this economy as an elderly friend: Old age means coming death On The Money: Rising recession fears pose risk for Trump | Stocks suffer worst losses of 2019 | Trump blames 'clueless' Fed for economic worries MORE, to maintain low interest rates far later than many Republicans would have preferred. But he also supports easing some Dodd-Frank financial regulations, a long-time Republican goal fiercely opposed by many Democrats.

"You made a commitment to me that you would realize this job and role required an independent Fed chair that would not be subject to political lobbying and haranguing,” Warner said. 

“I think you’ve stuck to your guns so far, but I want you to keep sticking to your guns.”