Senate Democrats Unnecessarily Force Summers Out

Larry Summers is out of the running for chairman of the Federal Reserve after he notified the President yesterday “that any possible confirmation process for me would be acrimonious and would not serve the interests of the Federal Reserve, the Administration, or ultimately, the interests of the nation’s ongoing economic recovery.” Summers is right here. After Jon Tester (D-MT) announced Friday that he would vote against Summers in the Senate Banking Committee, it became clear that his confirmation process would be extremely difficult. His decision to bow out saves an ugly intraparty fight between the Administration and Senate Democrats. It was a fight that the President should’ve won, but wasn’t going to and Summers knew it.

To start, Obama should’ve nominated current Fed Vice-Chair Janet Yellen from the beginning. It should’ve been an easy decision. But the President loves Summers and was seemingly set on choosing him from the start. It wasn’t the optimal choice, but Summers would still have made an excellent Fed Chair. This is what makes it so absurd that Tester and other liberal Democrats were going to vote against him.

Larry Summers withdraws from the Fed Chair search.
Larry Summers withdraws from the Fed Chair search.

Summers is, by all accounts, a brilliant economist. However, many liberals were wary of his prominent role in the repeal of Glass-Steagall and the deregulation of the derivatives market in the late ’90s. There’s no question that Summers was a leader in making those decisions, but Summers has also learned from them. He supports banks holding greater levels of capital, one of the focal points of Dodd-Frank. In addition, there’s not much information on Yellen’s regulatory beliefs. She’s an economist by trade, not a regulator. But skeptics of Summers inherently believe that she would be a tougher regulator than him. As Josh Barro pointed out on Twitter last night though, if Republicans thought that was true of Summers, they would’ve supported him as well. But that hasn’t happened either. The fact is that Summer would in all likelihood have implemented Dodd-Frank in a similar manner to how Yellen would.

Other arguments against Summers is that the nomination of an elite Democrat would politicize the Fed too much. But this argument is overblown. The Fed is already a politicized institution and nominating Yellen over Summers wouldn’t change that.

One of the least covered areas of this debate has been Yellen and Summers views on monetary policy. Yellen is considered more of a dove, but only slightly more. Markets perceive a larger difference between the two than may actually exist.

Finally, Yellen’s proponents argue that Obama has done a poor job appointing women to economic positions. This is true, but it’s not a strong enough reason to oppose Summers.

For all those reasons, Yellen is a better choice. But she’s only slightly better. Summers would still likely do an excellent job as Federal Reserve chairman. Both candidates should have had no problem receiving Democratic support. Instead, liberal Democrats jumped on this as a chance to fight the President. But why? This really does weaken Obama: he can’t even get his own party to support an extremely strong candidate in Summers. Does he have any sway on Capitol Hill at all? It’s increasingly looking like he doesn’t. This perceived weakness hurts not just Obama, but Democrats as a whole in trying to pass other legislation. A weak President is bad news the Democratic party.

This is why it was absurd for Democrats to vote against Summers. They may get a slightly better Fed Chair in Yellen (or maybe a worse one, if Obama nominates someone else) in return for showing that the President doesn’t even have sway in his own party. Does that sound like a smart move for Democratic senators and the Democratic party? It sure doesn’t to me.

Yet Another Reason Janet Yellen Should Be Fed Chair

This one comes from former CFTC chairperson Sheila Bair, who participated in a panel today on restoring economic growth in America. Asked afterwards about Janet Yellen’s gender playing a role in the nominating process, she responded:

Janet Yellen can stand on her own. The fact that she’s a women should be irrelevant to this. I think her gender has been working against her. Some people have been saying that if she gets it, it’s just because she’s a woman. That’s nonsense. Of all the candidates I’ve heard about, I view her as the most qualified.

Absolutely. It should be icing on the cake for President Obama that the most qualified candidate would also be a groundbreaking choice.

Bair then brought up another aspect of Yellen’s candidacy that I haven’t seen written anywhere before: her lengthy time in public service.

[Her appointment] would make an important statement about public service. Revolving door is an accepted practice in Washington. I don’t fault people who do it. But there have been a number of high-level appointments where you’ve had people going in and out of Wall Street. Janet’s not one of those people. Most of her recent career has been in public service or in academia. Some people say, ‘Well, she doesn’t have Wall Street experience.’ I view that as a positive. She hasn’t done the revolving door. She’s got a good public image. That would be another thing that argues in her favor. Others who do come from Wall Street or have come back and forth from there  will reinforce the public’s cynicism that I worry about. But she does not have that. It would be a good tribute to those who do spend most of their time in public service.

Yellen is the best candidate for the job. Period. But this is yet another reason to select her. The Obama economic circle is littered with people with recent ties to the financial industry. That’s not a knock on them – as Bair pointed out, it’s common practice in Washington. But the Fed is going to make a lot of major regulatory decisions in the next couple of years. Wouldn’t it be nice if the Fed Chair wasn’t buddy-buddy with a bunch of bankers interested in watering down those rules?

Bair also correctly emphasizes that nominating Yellen would signal to career public servants that their loyalty to their jobs will not harm their chances of being promoted in the future. I think the counterfactual is even more convincing though. Imagine if Obama selects Summers and one of the reasons for doing so is because of his private sector experience. Now, government officials have incentives to leave their jobs to gain such experience. After all, Obama just demonstrated that not having it will reduce their chances of promotion. The revolving door isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as Matt Yglesias pointed out. But it presents the opportunity for rent-seeking and quid-pro-quo agreements that hinder federal agencies. Selecting Yellen sends a signal to government officials that private sector experience – using the revolving door – is not necessary.

Overall, it’s not a big enough reason to choose Yellen over Summers. Most public workers aren’t going to suddenly decide they desperately need private sector experience if Summers is chosen. But it is yet another advantage that Yellen has. At this point, it shouldn’t be a difficult decision for the President: Yellen is the best choice. We’ll find out soon enough.

Justice Sotomayor’s Supreme Court Nomination and Janet Yellen

During my brief vacation last week, I read Jeffrey Toobin’s excellent new book The Oath that examines President Obama’s complicated relationship with the Supreme Court. The book gives a background of the justices and analyzes the major cases brought before the Court over the last couple of years. One passage in particular, on Obama’s consideration of Sonia Sotomayor for an open spot on the Court, struck me:

He sensed an authenticity in [Sotomayor], and no one had to remind the president of the political appeal of appointing the first Hispanic to the Supreme Court. If he had a chance to make history in this way, with an impeccably qualified nominee, Obama was going to do it.

What major appointment will Obama make in the near future that has an impeccably qualified nominee who would make history as well? Janet Yellen to head the Federal Reserve of course! The Supreme Court and the Fed are certainly different institutions and Obama has clearly shown an affinity to Larry Summers that he did not have for the other prospective Supreme Court nominee, Diane Wood. But the similarities are still striking.

Meanwhile, more reports are floating around that Obama is leaning towards Summers for the job. As I’ve said before, I’m very skeptical about any reporting on who the next Fed Chair will be. Maybe it’ll be Summers. Maybe Yellen. We’ll know in a short time. The decision will be kept under lock-and-key until the President announces his choice. Until then, we can hold out hope that Toobin’s intuition on Obama’s Supreme Court nominee holds true for his Fed Chair nominee as well.