Congress to Bernanke: So long, and thanks

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WASHINGTON — Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has remained silent about widespread speculation that he will not stick around after his term as the head of the nation’s central bank ends next year.

But to Congress, he’s as good as gone.

Lawmakers bid farewell to Bernanke during his appearances on Capitol Hill over the past two days for what could be his final regular report to Congress. Even some of the Fed’s most ardent critics paused to thank the bearded, softspoken academic for thwarting what could have been the next Great Depression.

“I know we’ve had our differences on some issues, but I really do especially appreciate the way you handled the crisis,” Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said. “I don’t know how many people could’ve handled that crisis and the complexities that came with it in the way that you did.”

Bernanke began his tenure as chairman in 2006, near the peak of the country’s housing boom, and shepherded the economy through the recession. He was reappointed to the position in 2010 amid a faltering recovery. Though he is widely credited with mitigating the damage from the financial crisis, Bernanke has also come under fire for using unconventional new tools, such as keeping interest rates near zero and buying billions of dollars in mortgage bonds.

President Barack Obama said last month that Bernanke has done an “outstanding job” but that he has stayed in his position “a lot longer than he wanted or he was supposed to.” The White House is said to be considering a list of possible replacements. Asked about his legacy during a speech last week in Massachusetts, Bernanke pointed to changes in the way the central bank communicates with investors and the public. The Fed set an explicit target for inflation, holds regular news conferences and debates monetary policy more openly.

“I was on this committee for a long time and never knew where the Federal Reserve was until Chairman Bernanke became the chairman of the Fed,” Rep. Mel Watt, D-N.C., said. “He opened up the process and demystified what the Fed does.”

Of course, lawmakers didn’t pass up the opportunity to grill Bernanke on how the central bank will unwind some of the controversial programs that grew out of the financial crisis. After thanking Bernanke for his service, House Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, blamed the Fed for fueling the deficit by buying government debt.

“Now my words are sincere, but they do not negate my concern over the state of the economy today and the role that the Fed is playing in it,” he said.

Yet with so many lawmakers from both sides of the aisle reminiscing over Bernanke’s tenure, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver likened the proceedings to a eulogy. “I’m not trying to frighten you,” the Missouri Democrat told Bernanke. “I mean, even the Twinkie came back.”

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