In the end, Thursday’s vote on Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s nomination to a second term proved a bit anticlimactic given the drama of the previous week.
But while the Senate handily approved his nomination, 70-30, Bernanke still drew a record-breaking level of opposition, four years after he skated through the Senate. And the Obama administration can’t feel entirely relieved that its nominee survived the rocky debate, since the distress and anger that fueled such a surge in anti-Bernanke feeling are unlikely to dissipate anytime soon.
Bernanke’s opponents Thursday were disappointed with the final tally but still claimed a victory of sorts in getting the administration’s attention.
“I hope that resends a signal to Mr. Bernanke and to the White House that the Fed has finally got to begin to protect the interests of the middle class and working families and small-business people of this country rather than the CEOs of Wall Street,” Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, looking a little crestfallen, said after the vote.
He noted that Bernanke’s opposition far outstripped the 16 opposition votes to Paul Volcker’s second-term nomination in 1983, a time when the public was seething against the Fed’s inflation-fighting policies. “In this particular fight, we were taking on the powers of Wall Street – those guys don’t lose very often, and, in fact, the White House pulled out all the stops on this one.”
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) complained that President Barack Obama’s economic team favored Wall Street’s recovery over that of Main Street. He said his “no” vote was meant to send a signal that “the leaders of President Obama’s economic team must pivot from the necessary rescue of our major financial institutions to equally if not more necessary help to America’s families.”
“If you’re a scorekeeper of our recovery, it looks like it can be summarized in the two-word phrase: Banks win. That is not a balanced score,” Whitehouse said.
The final vote came just minutes after the Senate broke a filibuster on the nomination, voting 77-23 to end debate and clear the way for confirmation. Seven lawmakers voted to end the filibuster then pivoted to vote against the confirmation itself, which required a simple majority.
“I am gratified by the Senate’s broad bipartisan vote to confirm Ben Bernanke for another term,” President Barack Obama said in a statement Thursday evening.
Two notable “no” votes on the Democratic side: Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Arlen Specter (D-Pa.), who both face difficult reelection fights.
Congressional watchers have started to ponder who might be the next target of the growing populist anger on the Hill and across the country. “You can never tell with populism,” observed Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who called the anger against Bernanke “misdirected” and the result of political pandering.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), another Bernanke supporter, warned his colleagues about indulging the anger of the moment.
“We need to mature a little bit. … If we continue constant witch hunts, which is what happens here on a daily basis, no one in leadership is ever going to make a bold decision. You’re going to reduce people to just not taking leadership.”
During debate on Bernanke, it was hard to tell Republicans and Democrats apart as they voiced their disapproval. Both talked about the Fed’s lack of transparency, its preference for Wall Street over Main Street and Bernanke’s failure to see the warning signs of the impending meltdown or take regulatory actions against the risky practices that caused it.
“It seems to be a very bad idea to reward somebody with reappointment who failed at an enormously important task which has driven this country into a severe recession,” railed Sanders on the Senate floor.
“If we don’t hold Chairman Bernanke accountable, what precedent are we setting for future regulators? What incentive will they have to take the tough steps necessary to ensure that our financial institutions are adequately regulated?” asked Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, the top Republican on the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee.
Bernanke’s confirmation may have required Democrats and Republicans to join together, but it wasn’t the result of warm bipartisan feelings for everyone.
Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, No. 2 in the GOP leadership, declared on the floor that he would support Bernanke because he doesn’t trust Obama to name a better replacement.
“This administration has a history of nominating partisan, out-of-the-mainstream individuals for key jobs, and replacing Chairman Bernanke would be another opportunity to do so,” Kyl said.
Some Republicans downplayed such concerns as a key reason for the 22 “yes” votes from the GOP side, but Texas Sen. John Cornyn – who voted no – said that “the biggest concern I’ve heard both from folks in the financial community and members of Congress is who’s next?
“It could be a lot worse,” he observed, declining to name who was on the worse-than-Bernanke list.
Those giving pro-Bernanke speeches also noted Bernanke’s many mistakes in the years before the crisis but argued that his extraordinary actions during the financial meltdown staved off another Great Depression. And that leadership, supporters said, earned him a second term.
When the history of the financial crisis is written, “Bernanke will prove to have been one of the heroes,” said Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.). “He proved to be the right man at the right time.”
Others also argued that the Senate shouldn’t switch horses midway through the economic recovery. Defeating Bernanke would spook markets at a time when they need “confidence and stability, not volatility,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.).
Blocking a chairman who has the “confidence of the markets I think would not be the right move to make,” said Virginia Democratic Sen. Mark Warner.