Summers's Colleagues Criticize Politicization of Fed Chair Selection Process

In the aftermath of Lawrence H. Summers’s withdrawal from consideration for the position of Federal Reserve chairman, several Harvard faculty members condemned the politicization of the confirmation process and expressed dismay over the decision.

“It is a sad outcome and a very bad precedent for future Fed chair appointments to have this one become a subject of public and political debate,” economics professor Martin S. Feldstein ’61 said in an emailed statement to The Crimson.

Harvard Kennedy School professor Jeffrey A. Frankel said that Summers’s announcement had demonstrated how “the Senate confirmation process is broken.”

“President Obama should be able to have the chairman he wants, just like he should be able to have the Cabinet members he wants,” Frankel said. “And yet they and lots of federal judges and lots of other positions are very commonly blocked.”

In 2009, Obama appointed Summers to lead the National Economic Council, where he helped steer the administration through the nation’s worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Until Sunday’s announcement, Summers had been considered a frontrunner for the position of Fed chairman.

According to Richard J. Zeckhauser ’62, a professor of political economy at the Kennedy School, the controversy surrounding Summers’s candidacy will make potential candidates for similar appointments “less willing to serve.”

“It’s hard enough for the President to get the appointments through when they’re opposed by the other party. Usually almost every senator supports the president when [the nominee] is in his own party,” Zeckhauser said. “Now we’re going to start to have...ideological concerns within the party. It’s going to make it just an awful lot harder.”

Frankel said that several factors, including Summers’s economic philosophy, played a role in the politicization of the process.

“Some people appear to think that he would tighten monetary policy, raise interest rates, or stop quantitative easing,” Frankel said, adding that the role Summers played in deregulating financial markets during the Clinton administration may have led to opposition.

Zeckhauser, however, pointed to Summers’s focus on evidence rather than ideology in policy-making and said he believes that even Summers was unsure of his potential platform.

“I don’t think that the people who opposed him know what he would have done, because I don’t think that he knows what he would have done.” Zeckhauser said. “One thing that’s clear is that his policies would have been really empirically grounded.”

Frankel referenced Summers’s history at the University—in particular, controversial comments he made regarding womens’ aptitude in the math and sciences—as a potential reason for his withdrawal. Summers resigned as University president in 2006, almost one year after the Faculty of Arts and Sciences passed a vote of no-confidence in his leadership.

Of the professors interviewed, most expressed the opinion that Summers, had he been confirmed, would have been more than qualified for the position.

Frankel called Summers “very well-qualified” for Fed chairman, and Zeckhauser said the former Treasury secretary would have been “superb” in the position. He added that Summers’s experience in the “cauldron of policy-making” placed him apart from the other candidates.

“[Summers] would have been a great Fed Chairman too, but we’re happy to have him as a colleague,” said political economy professor Marc J. Melitz.

—Staff Writer Francesca Annicchiarico can be reached at francesca.annicchiarico@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @FRAnnicchiarico.

—Staff Writer John P. Finnegan can be reached at finnegan@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @finneganspake.

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