Senate, Weakly, Backs New Term for Bernanke
WASHINGTON — The Senate gave Ben S. Bernanke a second four-year term as the head of the Federal Reserve on Thursday after critics excoriated the central bank’s conduct in the years leading up to the financial crisis.
The 70-to-30 vote was the weakest endorsement ever extended to a chairman in the Fed’s 96-year history.
The confirmation was a victory for President Obama, who had called Mr. Bernanke an architect of the recovery, but also signaled the extent to which the Fed, once little known to the public, has become the object of outrage over high unemployment and bank bailouts.
In several hours of debate, senators said that the Fed had abetted, then ignored, the housing and credit bubbles and allowed banks to keep dangerously low capital reserves and to make reckless lending decisions that ruined consumers. Some even blamed Mr. Bernanke for the falling dollar and questioned his commitment to free enterprise.
In contrast, Mr. Bernanke’s supporters were muted. They reiterated that the Fed had made mistakes but said that Mr. Bernanke had helped save the economy from a far worse recession.
After a week in which top White House officials and Mr. Bernanke met with Democratic leaders in the Senate to secure support, the Senate first voted 77 to 23 to end debate, with more than the 60 votes needed to overcome the threat of a filibuster.
On a second vote, to confirm, the 30 dissents came from 18 Republicans, 11 Democrats and one independent, Bernard Sanders of Vermont.
On Thursday evening, Mr. Obama congratulated Mr. Bernanke in a statement. “As the nation continues to face the consequences of the worst recession in a generation, Ben Bernanke has provided wisdom and steady leadership in the midst of the financial and economic crisis,” he said.
While an arm-twisting campaign by the administration limited the opposition, the outcry against the Fed will most likely continue rippling through economic policy generally, and Mr. Bernanke’s leadership of the Fed in particular. The effects could be felt first in the debate over how to reform financial regulations. The Obama administration has proposed consolidating risk regulation under the Fed, while some in Congress want to strip away its oversight authority.
“The institutional prestige of the Fed, even apart from this vote, had taken a hit, and it started back around the disaster of September 2008,” said Stephen H. Axilrod, who worked at the Fed for 34 years and wrote a history of its monetary policies. “I don’t think it has recovered. This is a low point in the Fed’s recent history, that’s for sure.”
The vote also made clear Congress’s insistence on transparency from a historically secretive institution that has made extraordinary interventions in the market since 2008.
“The Fed is going to have to work hard, for a long period, to regain the public confidence of the sort it enjoyed during the halcyon days when everything was going so swimmingly,” said Barry Eichengreen, professor of economics and political science at the University of California, Berkeley.
Senators from opposite ends of the spectrum formed unlikely alliances. After Mr. Sanders, who calls himself a socialist, finished denouncing Mr. Bernanke, Jeff Sessions, a conservative Republican from Alabama, rose to do the same.
Another Alabaman, Richard C. Shelby, the top Republican on the banking committee, which approved the nomination last month by a 16-to-7 vote, laid out a bill of particulars, saying Mr. Bernanke’s handling of the financial crisis did not make up for his failings before that time.
“Considerable economic devastation occurred as a result of Chairman Bernanke’s loose monetary policy and weak regulatory oversight,” Mr. Shelby said. “If we don’t hold Chairman Bernanke accountable, what precedent are we setting for future regulators?”
To an extent, the rhetoric against Mr. Bernanke reflected a spilling-over of frustration at two of his collaborators: the former Treasury secretary, Henry M. Paulson Jr., and the current one, Timothy F. Geithner.
And looming over it all was the role of Mr. Bernanke’s predecessor, Alan Greenspan, whose once-sterling reputation has been diminished as his decisions to keep interest rates low after the 2001 recession have been brought into question.
Mr. Bernanke, 56, was a member of the Fed’s board for part of that period, from 2002 to 2005, when President George W. Bush named him to lead his Council of Economic Advisers. He rejoined the Fed, as chairman, in 2006, and Mr. Obama renominated him last year. Mr. Bernanke is a Republican economist and an authority on the Depression.
“I knew that he would continue the legacy of Alan Greenspan, and I was right,” said Senator Jim Bunning, Republican of Kentucky, who was the lone vote against Mr. Bernanke in 2005.
Mr. Bunning cited a half-dozen statements from 2007 to 2009 in which Mr. Bernanke expressed optimism about the housing market, bank capital ratios, the capitalization of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the unemployment rate. Saying that Mr. Bernanke had been repeatedly wrong, he declared, “We shouldn’t be paying the Fed chairman to learn on the job.”
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, echoed that, saying Mr. Bernanke had shown “a troubling pattern of false confidence.” Senator Jeff Merkley, Democrat of Oregon, went further, saying the Fed had “helped set the fire that destroyed our economy.”
While less passionate, supporters of Mr. Bernanke said he had acted deftly and decisively, at least since the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008.
“He basically allowed the Fed to become the lender of the nation,” said Senator Judd Gregg, Republican of New Hampshire. “Nobody had ever done that. The way he did it was extraordinary in its creativity, and the results were that the country’s financial system did not collapse.”