Fed Governor Lael Brainard declared yesterday that the Federal Reserve “is designed to ensure that independence from the executive branch is absolutely the focus of the deliberations of the Federal Open Market Committee.” It is clear that her comments were a response to Donald Trump’s criticisms that the Federal Reserve was keeping interest rates artificially low to help the election of the President’s preferred candidate—Hillary Clinton.
One does not have to endorse Trump’s claims fully to believe that the degree of independence touted by Brainard is a serious overstatement. As Peter Conti-Brown has shown, the practical independence of the Fed falls far short of its design.
The seven members of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors are nominated by the President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. It is true that the full term of a governor is fourteen years and appointments are staggered so that one term expires in each even-numbered year The lengthy terms and staggered appointments are indeed intended to contribute to the insulation of the Board—and the Federal Reserve System as a whole—from day to day political pressures.
But governors almost never serve anything close to their fourteen year terms. The outside options are simply so lucrative that almost everyone resigns after terms far short of that. As a result, today every Governor of the Federal Reserve was appointed by President Obama. Brainard herself is Obama’s former Undersecretary of the Treasury, not to mention a candidate for Secretary of that department in the Clinton administration. Would we think a Supreme Court was independent of the President if all its members were appointed by him?