Liberals turn to Fed in populist push

Left-leaning groups and lawmakers are taking their populist economic fight to the Federal Reserve, as they seek to exert new influence over key monetary decisions and a pair of vacancies at the central bank.

The Fed has faced heavy criticism from the right for years, but the other side of the aisle is now beginning to publicly push the institution for preferred policies.


With Congress and the White House seemingly set to butt heads for the next two years, left-leaning community and labor groups are turning to the Fed in an attempt to get an economic policy boost for middle- and working-class Americans.

“In the face of the fiscal side not being really a realistic option to promote an economic recovery, the most important economic policymaker in the United States is the Federal Reserve,” said Shawn Sebastian, policy advocate for the Center for Popular Democracy.

And after successfully driving President Obama to nominate Janet Yellen to lead the Fed, some Senate Democrats are again pressing the administration about openings at the central bank. Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenDemocrats calls on Biden administration to ease entry to US for at-risk Afghans Biden stiff arms progressives on the Postal Service Trump by the numbers: 2024 isn't simple MORE (D-Mass.) and Joe ManchinJoe ManchinBriahna Joy Gray: Last-minute push for voting legislation felt 'perfomative' Manchin: Biden spending plan talks would start 'from scratch' Manchin, Collins leading talks on overhauling election law, protecting election officials MORE (D-W.Va.) are vocally calling on Obama to nominate tough-nosed Wall Street watchdogs to fill out two board spots that often are filled by academics or economists.

The resurgence of left-leaning interest in the Fed’s operations further complicates the bank’s efforts to remain above the political fray. The Fed has weathered years of criticism from the right, which argues its unprecedented foray into monetary stimulus after the recession was a recipe for disaster.

But now, with the Fed preparing to finally dial back years’ worth of quantitative easing, it’s the other side that is airing concerns. This time, the worry is that the Fed could tighten policy too quickly, even as millions of Americans still are looking for work or grappling with stagnant paychecks.

“I have been concerned for some time that when the Federal Reserve began to tighten policy that they would be subject to considerable pressure from people who don’t want them to do that,” said Donald Kohn, a former Fed vice chairman now with the Brookings Institution.

A host of left-leaning groups, including the AFL-CIO and the Economic Policy Institute, have joined forces to take a populist message directly to the Fed. The groups have protested a central bank powwow in Jackson Hole, Wyo., and have held public protests outside the institution’s headquarters in Washington.

The leftward push on the Fed follows those groups notching a major victory at the central bank in 2013. With Obama reportedly favoring economic adviser Lawrence Summers to replace the outgoing Ben Bernanke as head of the Fed, Democrats on and off Capitol Hill embarked on a concerted campaign to get Yellen nominated for the top job instead.

Democratic lawmakers took the rare step of publicly advocating for Yellen, then the Fed’s vice chairwoman, before a nomination was made, effectively announcing opposition to Summers in the process. Though Obama defended Summers in public, he ultimately deferred to that pressure and nominated Yellen for the job.

Now, Warren and Manchin are hoping to exert more influence, calling on Obama to fill two openings at the seven-member board with tough supervisors who “have a demonstrated commitment to not backing down when they find problems.”

Fed governors are given a 14-year term, so if those two find success on that front, the end result could be a considerable shift in how the central bank operates as a financial regulator. And any new voices would likely receive an open hearing from Yellen, whose background is as an economist, not a regulator.

“My impression is that Chair Yellen is running the system by consensus in a considerable way, she consults widely,” said Kohn.

Since taking the job, Yellen has made a concerted effort to place the Fed’s deliberations within the context of the working class. One of her first acts as the Fed’s new leader was to address at a Chicago event how the central bank hoped to boost jobs, and she has agreed to meet with left-leaning protestors to hear their concerns.

But Yellen’s openness to those new voices is leaving some unsettled.

“There’s a trend here that’s pretty clear and pretty concerning,” said Steven Lonegan, director of monetary policy at American Principles in Action, which advocates for tighter Fed policy, including a return to the gold standard.

“You can’t start manipulating the value of our money because you have a specific political agenda,” he added.

But these new advocates argue the Fed has always been subject to politics. Sebastian argued that Fed officials and those that track Fed policy skew heavily from corporate and banking interests, leaving a “Main Street” voice out of the picture.

“Every person carries political baggage,” he said. “All we’re trying to do is have that conversation reflect reality.”

But even the people behind the new leftward push on the Fed acknowledge advocacy of the publicly mysterious institution is somewhat novel. Conservative criticism of the Fed has been around for years, first helmed by former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), but a more liberal effort for influence has not been seen in decades.

“This is a new space for us,” said Sebastian. “We don’t know what the effect of this type of engagement will be.”