Suddenly the Federal Reserve is everybody's punching bag.
Strip the Fed of its bank regulation powers, some in Congress are demanding. Get probing audits of its behind-the-scenes operations, others say.
The chairman of the Federal Reserve Board is always fair game for criticism and second-guessing, usually over interest rate actions. But this year the criticism is much broader as Congress responds to widespread public anger that the Fed bailed out Wall Street but not ordinary Americans, and with unemployment in double digits.
Former Fed chairman William McChesney Martin Jr. famously said that the central bank's job was to yank away the punchbowl just when everybody is starting to party. And while Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has signalled the Fed will keep interest rates low for now, a round of higher rates inevitably will come.
The Fed finds itself both the punchbowl keeper and the punching bag. Imagine the outcry when it does begin to crank up rates—perhaps just ahead of next year's midterm elections.
Fireworks seem likely at Senate confirmation hearings early next month on President Barack Obama's nomination of Bernanke to a second four-year term as chairman.
Many economists and Fed watchers say congressional efforts to rein in the Fed's powers could interfere with the central bank's ability to help guide the fragile economy to recovery.
The Fed's very independence and its unique ability among U.S. institutions to create money out of thin air enabled it to act quickly to stabilize the nation's financial system after it froze up last September after the bankruptcy of the Lehman Brothers investment house, Fed backers say.
"It might have been the Fed's finest moment when it had to jump into the market," said David M. Jones, a former Fed economist and president of DMJ Advisors, a Denver-based consulting firm. "We still have to wait to see how effective the Fed is in its exit strategy and whether it can keep inflation in check. But this badgering by Congress, even if there is populist sentiment, is inappropriate."