Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke ran into more tough questions Wednesday on Capitol Hill about the central bank's extraordinary actions to rescue the economy and its ability to take on even more responsibility.
Bernanke spoke before the Senate Banking Committee, one day after waging a defense of the Fed's actions before lawmakers in the House.
Last year's taxpayer-financed rescues of insurance giant American International Group and others outraged many ordinary Americans and some lawmakers.
"Why does the Fed deserve more authority" when it failed to spot the current financial crisis before it struck? wondered Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., chairman of the committee.
Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., raised the same concerns about expanding the Fed's duties to police big financial companies, as envisioned by the Obama administration.
On the economy, high unemployment is "the most pressing issue" as the nation struggles to emerge from recession, Bernanke told the Senate panel. He also said the Fed is monitoring the troubled commercial real estate market, where defaults are rising.
Bernanke's innovative policies have been credited with helping avert a financial catastrophe last year. But critics worry about putting more taxpayer money at risk — and about leaving companies more inclined to take big gambles, confident the government will support them.
The Fed chief also argued against congressional proposals to let the Government Accountability Office, Congress' investigative arm, audit the central bank. He says audits that delve into the Fed's interest-rate decisions could compromise its independence in setting interest-rate policies.
"You've argued for transparency and haven't delivered," huffed Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky. "You still resist fully opening your books. You are the one throwing away independence by acting as an arm of the Treasury."
Bernanke said he would work with Congress to release information about how taxpayer money is being used in the financial bailout. But he resisted the idea of providing more information about interest-rate policy.
Bernanke stands firm
"Where I'm resisting is monetary policy," Bernanke said.
The Obama administration's plan to overhaul financial oversight, if it became law, would avoid additional AIG-like taxpayer bailouts, Bernanke says.
In his first day on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Bernanke ran into skepticism from lawmakers on the House Financial Services Committee about giving the Fed more powers, since it failed to spot problems that led to the financial crisis in the first place.
The Fed chief on Tuesday told the House Financial Services Committee that the administration's proposal would be a "modest reorientation" of the Fed's powers, not a great expansion of them.
All the hand-wringing on Capitol Hill about the future shape of the Fed — as well as the nation's broader regulatory structure — comes at a politically delicate time for Bernanke. His term expires early next year, and President Barack Obama will have to decide whether to reappoint him.
The Fed chief — as he did Tuesday — assured lawmakers that the central bank will be able to reel in its economic stimulus and prevent a flare up of inflation once a recovery is firmly rooted. Still, any such steps will be far off in the future. The central bank's focus remains "fostering economic recovery," he said.
Bernanke also worked to beat back an administration proposal to create a new consumer protection regulator for financial services and strip some of those duties from the central bank. The House panel delayed a committee vote on that legislation until September.
Regarding its consumer protection oversight, Bernanke acknowledged, "The Fed hasn't done all it should have" in the past.
Consumer groups and lawmakers have blamed the Fed for failing to crack down early on dubious mortgages practices that fed the housing boom and figured into its collapse. Later this week, the Fed will issue a proposal to boost disclosures on mortgages and home equity lines of credit. It also will include new rules governing the compensation of mortgage originators.