Our Unaccountable Fed

Not having a real budget means the Federal Reserve doesn't have to compete with anyone for scarce resources. What the central bank needs is a little money competition.

'I will maintain to my deathbed that we made every effort to save Lehman, but we were just unable to do so because of a lack of legal authority." So said Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke in 2009. The statement was striking—not because it was false, but because the Fed lacked explicit legal authority to do so much of what it did during the financial crisis. Drawing the line at Lehman seemed arbitrary, and it proved that the Fed has become an unaccountable power within American government.

Mr. Bernanke's insistence that the Fed is restrained by some obscure statute is central to his argument that the Fed is a body subject to the check of external forces. But it's not. The principal check on its power is the self-restraint of its chairman, a point proven by the Lehman example: Had Mr. Bernanke saved Lehman, who would have enforced the statute that he had violated? No one. That's because the Fed, as currently configured, has no opposing force to rein it in.

In the beginning, it was not so. When the Fed was created in 1913, the gold standard limited its power as did the balance between the 12 reserve banks across the country and the Federal Reserve Board in Washington. Lawmakers thought that the reserve banks would represent regional economic interests in tension with the national political agenda of the board in Washington. Moreover, the Federal Reserve Act imposed a hard constraint on the Fed's balance sheet: 40% of the Fed's notes had to be backed by gold. Finally, the Fed's charter was temporary, lasting only 20 years before requiring congressional reauthorization.

These constraining forces began unraveling almost right away. During World War I, the Wilson administration suspended and then restricted the dollar's convertibility into gold. In 1927, the Fed's charter was extended indefinitely. In 1932, the Glass-Steagall Act effectively unmoored the Fed's balance sheet from gold by allowing government bonds to serve as collateral against the issuance of Federal Reserve notes. And with the passage of the Banking Act of 1935, the Fed's newly expanded powers were concentrated in the Federal Reserve Board, at the expense of the reserve banks. Thus by the mid-1930s, the only remaining check on the Fed's power was statutory.

Statutory supervision of government bureaucracies is usually workable because Congress maintains the power of the purse. But the Fed, which can print money, has no budget constraint. Its profit and loss statement doesn't matter because, unlike every other legal entity, its liabilities are irredeemable. Not having a real budget means that the Fed doesn't have to compete with anyone for scarce resources.

Accordingly, Congress, banks and businesses—institutions that would typically be skeptical of a government bureaucracy's uncontrolled expansion—are instead interested in capturing the Fed for their own purposes. From the Long-Term Capital Management bailout in 1998 to the cleanup of 2008, Congress has come to rely on the Fed's ability to act—and thereby excuse Congress from having to vote on unpopular bailouts. What's more, the government remains dependent on the Fed to help finance its debt going forward. Similarly, banks and big corporations are potential beneficiaries of low-cost leverage and (in the wake of popped bubbles) expedient bailouts.

Thanks to the tea party, there are increased numbers of reform-minded leaders in Congress willing to take on big issues such as the Fed. But even those lawmakers who recognize the Fed's threat to liberty are advocating narrow fixes, such as imposing the "single mandate" of price stability (and removing the Fed's statutory responsibility for full employment). That alone wouldn't impose any meaningful check or balance on the Fed's power.

If the history of the Fed proves anything, it is that no mere rule will take the fiat out of fiat money. And there is no reason to believe that a single mandate would have stopped "quantitative easing." More importantly, what would happen to the single mandate of price stability if and when the Fed violated it? At worst, Congress would hold hearings and be very, very upset. Or it wouldn't do even that, because the most likely reason the Fed would allow inflation to get out of control is to finance Congress's ever-growing budget deficits.

Members of Congress seeking to restrict the Fed's power need to consider what oppositional force is truly capable of hemming it in. One answer is a revived gold standard, which would once again obligate the Fed to redeem dollars for gold at a fixed rate.

Equally effective would be to leave the Fed and the dollar system untouched, but to allow gold a level playing field on which to compete with the dollar. Utah has already taken the first step in this direction by passing a law formally recognizing gold as legal tender. But for the playing field to be truly leveled, all taxes on gold transactions need to be removed and individuals and businesses need to be permitted to report their financial accounts in gold.

While it might not seem obvious to pit the dollar against gold, which has not been used as final money in over 100 years, it would provide a significant restraint on the Fed. Simply allowing gold to be used as currency again would concentrate the minds of the Federal Reserve Board on keeping inflation under control. Competition, after all, would mean that if the Fed doesn't preserve price stability, it will lose its monopoly franchise—not just get a tough talking-to from Congress.

Mr. Fieler and Mr. Bell are chairman and policy director, respectively, of the American Principles Project.