The Senate’s banking leaders are not thrilled by a last minute amendment to a House transportation bill that taps a rainy day fund at the Federal Reserve, but they agree it’s a step up from other plans on the table.
The proposal would liquidate the Fed’s capital reserve fund, generating a savings of $59.45 billion over the next ten years. It would allow lawmakers to strike other payment provisions, including a Fed dividend cut for large commercial banks, and still boost funding in the transportation bill by $40 billion beyond what lawmakers had expected.
But Senate Banking Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), the panel’s ranking member, did not sound particularly excited about the proposal Monday evening, even if they did admit it was the lesser of two evils.
“I’m skeptical of it. It’s marginally better than it was—I said marginally,” Shelby said in an interview, comparing the capital surplus provision to the proposed dividend cut. “There’s no nexus between that and highway funding.”
“This potentially weakens the Fed,” Brown echoed, before adding that he “didn’t like the other way even more.”
“We ought to be doing user fees, that’s what we’ve done traditionally,” he said.
With final passage of the House legislation last week, lawmakers are now moving to a conference committee. It is a chance for Senate and House negotiators to reconcile differences between that bill and a Senate version that passed the chamber in July. Congress has until Nov. 20 to come to an agreement, or it will need to extend federal highway construction authority yet again.
The Senate’s highway bill would provide roughly three years, or $35 billion, of transportation funding by cobbling together a slew of budget savings.
That plan, cooked up by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) in the final days before the summer recess, drew sharp criticism from lawmakers in both parties, who said the bill was a one-time solution that raided programs unrelated to transportation. Traditionally, the account has been funded by a federal gas tax.
Still, the Senate bill passed the chamber. After an attempt by then-House Ways & Means Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to tax overseas corporate profits stalled, it became the template for financing a multi-year highway bill.
A number of proposed Senate pay-fors never made it into the final bill, but one – a cut to the Fed dividends earned by banks with over $1 billion in assets – stayed in the package, despite its deep unpopularity with banks, which complained that they shouldn’t have to foot most of the bill for building roads.
The Fed agreed. Fed Chair Janet Yellen testified in July that the proposal could cause some smaller banks to leave the Fed system.
The proposal to drain the Fed’s capital surplus account would eliminate that offset, as well as another one that would delay expected cuts to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s guarantee fees on mortgages. The additional $40 billion would more than double the roughly $35 billion lawmakers had previously been working for, potentially filling the nation’s infrastructure accounts for years longer than expected.
Most Fed earnings, after accounting for expenses and dividend payments to member banks, are paid to the Department of the Treasury. But the Fed holds back some of those funds in the capital surplus account in case it needs the extra money in a bad year.
A 2002 General Accounting Office report on the surplus account said that reducing it would result in “no significant long-term effect on the budget or the economy.” In a statement to the New York Times, the Fed criticized the proposal, saying it “infringes on the independence of the central bank and weakens fiscal discipline.”
The GAO study noted that the Federal Reserve System has not experienced an annual operating loss since 1915. Plus, the surplus account isn’t the only safeguard the Fed can draw from in difficult times. It also has the money that commercial banks pay to buy into the Fed system.
The Fed has, however, previously experienced weekly losses and relied on the capital surplus account to cover the shortfall.