As Federal Reserve chairman, Jerome Powell oversees monetary policy and regulates banks. But members of Congress questioned him as if he were an omnipotent politician capable of addressing all sorts of issues that fell beyond the normal duties of central banking.
The hot seat questioning reached its apex during grilling from Rep. Stephen Lynch, a Massachusetts Democrat furious over White House-backed tax cuts and reductions in entitlement programs like food stamps.
Powell responded that Lynch’s concerns “are not issues that we have authority over.”
“There’s nobody better suited. You are the chairman of the Federal Reserve,” Lynch responded. “Do you know when you sneeze, Wall Street crumbles?”
Lynch encouraged Powell to take his supposedly immense authority and use it to persuade President Donald Trump to change his agenda.
“You are well-prepared for this. Your experience as I’ve read shows that you have deep compassion for people,” Lynch said. “All I’m asking you to do is every once in a while, if you can, say, ‘Hold on, Mr. President, this isn’t right to be shipping food to the poorest people in this country and denying them the right to go into the grocery store to buy food.”
Lynch was referring to the administration’s proposal to discontinue most SNAP benefits, or food stamps, that low-income recipients use to buy groceries and insteadship actual boxes of food to their homes.
The line of questioning was repeated in various ways during the hearing, with Democrats assailing Powell with grievances over Trump-backed policies.
Powell faced repeated hectoring from House Financial Services Committee Democrats about discrimination in home lending, which is in the Fed’s purview. However, he also endured grilling from Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., about how companies would spend the windfall from the recent tax-cut bill, something that is not.
At one point, Rep. Al Green, D-Texas, conceded he was playing the “race card” because of his concern over persistent high levels of black unemployment.
The hearing became a sounding for grievances about all sorts of Trump administration policies, particularly the tax cuts passed in December.
“With their tax scam, Republicans have engineered a massive giveaway to corporations and the ultra-rich, at the expense of hardworking Americans,” complained Rep. Maxine Waters, the California Democrat who serves as ranking member of the committee.
Powell appeared flummoxed at times by some of the comments, though he tried to answer the wide-ranging questions as best he could.
Rep. Michael Capuano, a Massachusetts Democrat, pushed Powell on whether he would be in favor of a U.K.-modeled law forcing companies to pay employees equally regardless of gender — a legislative issue that seemed to have nothing to do with the hearing’s topic at hand, though Capuano insisted it did.
“These are the kinds of things that Congress should consider,” Powell said. “We have a job, we have a really important job to do that you’ve assigned us to. For now, we’re going to stick to that.”