BusinessWeek.com By Phil Mattingly and Robert Schmidt
Retiring New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg, one of the Federal Reserve’s most stalwart Republican supporters, showed up for a meeting at the central bank in November bearing a surprising gift: a box of End the Fed books. As he handed out the 2009 best seller by Representative Ron Paul, a longtime Fed critic, Gregg told the gathering it would be worth reading to see what the other side is plotting.
It may have taken 34 years, but Ron Paul has arrived, and he doesn’t plan to squander the moment. His agenda includes landing the chairmanship of the House Financial Services Committee panel that oversees monetary policy—a job that will give him the power to push legislation reining in the central bank and to haul Fed governors up to Capitol Hill for hearings.
The prospect has Wall Street, Fed officials, and even Republican House leaders worried that Paul’s agenda could roil the markets and make a mockery of the U.S. financial system. This is a man, after all, who entered politics because President Richard Nixon bucked the gold standard in 1971, and now wants to make gold and silver legal tender. He is pressing for an audit of the Fort Knox bullion depository and, earlier this year, grilled Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke about the central bank’s alleged funding of Watergate and Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program. Bernanke called the charges “absolutely bizarre.”
Although his book ploy was couched in humor, Gregg laid plain a new Washington reality: Moderate, probusiness lawmakers like him, who consistently protected the central bank’s independence and ability to set monetary policy, are mostly gone. In their place are politicians who view the Fed with suspicion, or worse. Their unofficial leader is Paul, the 75-year-old Texan whose quixotic 2008 Presidential run on the twin themes of ending the federal income tax and abolishing the Fed vaulted him to prominence with the nascent Tea Party. Some of those admirers are among the 75-plus new Republicans about to join Congress. For the first time since he was elected to the House in 1976, Paul’s followers are formidable.
They include his son Rand, an incoming senator from Kentucky who routinely bashed the Fed on the campaign trail and is now angling for a seat on the Senate Banking Committee where he, too, could train his sights on the central bank. Calls to Rand Paul’s staff seeking comment were not returned.
Officials at several major banks have privately raised concerns with Republican leaders that, by allowing Paul to become a chairman, his radical views would gain legitimacy, according to three bank lobbyists. Others are watching with great interest. “Congressman Paul has his own very strong views on things, and you’ve got to respect that,” says Steve Verdier, a lobbyist for the Independent Community Bankers of America, which represents smaller lenders and has fought efforts to weaken the central bank. “I think there is a strong consensus in the country to maintain the independence of the Fed,” he adds…