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Federal Reserve Chair Jay Powell

Dogs, lollipops and plain talk: How Jay Powell works the Hill

The chair of the Federal Reserve is always a fixation for members of Congress. And Jay Powell has worked hard to scratch lawmakers’ central bank itch.

Powell has cultivated a deep relationship with Capitol Hill since becoming Fed chair in 2018. Veteran lawmakers say his approach has been remarkable.

“It’s a comfort level with the Hill that I haven’t seen,” House Financial Services Committee Chair Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) said. McHenry told us that Powell “has the most active outreach of any Fed chair that I’ve served with.”

Powell’s job is tough. He’s had to manage an uncertain U.S. economy on the eve of an election, the occasional trading scandal and sharp scrutiny over the Fed’s bank supervision practices.

Keeping Congress close makes the job easier. Managing congressional criticism from both parties can give a Fed chair more room to maneuver during tense economic and political times. The Fed will announce its next interest rate decision on Wednesday.

Since January 2023, Powell has met with or called U.S. lawmakers at least 56 times, according to a Punchbowl News tally of the chair’s public calendar. For comparison, former Fed Chair and now-Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen met or called lawmakers 38 times between January 2017 and February 2018, per her calendars.

We can feel the effects of Powell’s outreach on the Hill. Lawmakers frequently mention the meetings, calls and breakfasts they’ve had with the Fed chair.

Members are typically loath to tell us much about the specifics. But this week, we’ve ferreted out some details. Let’s unpack the good, the policy and the ugly.

The good: The vast majority of the lawmakers we interviewed who have privately met with Powell heaped praise on the Fed chair for his communication style and willingness to engage.

Powell has distinguished himself from other Fed chairs by using plain talk to describe the economy. “Powell is someone who speaks understandable language,” Financial Services Ranking Member Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) said.

Powell also, by many accounts, appears to be a pretty normal dude. “He’s down to earth and he’s relatable,” Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) said of the world’s most prominent central banker.

Many members have favorite anecdotes. Sen. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), who hosted a “relaxed” Powell at his office back in November, said: “Like me, he enjoys a lollipop. He had one of my lollipops.”

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) said Powell will “come in from time to time and pet Gus,” Tillis’ resident office dog, before giving Senate testimony. Powell has publicly praised Gus as “a good boy.”

The policy: For many lawmakers, the big draw is trying to understand how Powell views the undercurrents of monetary policy.

“You get a little bit of insight into his thought process and his ideas, his ideology, how he wants to think about an issue,” Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-Mo.) said.

More importantly, lawmakers say the conversations they have with Powell are productive. “He listens to people on the Hill,” Senate Banking Committee Chair Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said.

But Powell isn’t dumping the Fed’s internal deliberations out of a briefcase. Several lawmakers told us Powell can come off as guarded.

“He seems to be more willing to be a little more open in one-on-one conversations, but I think he’s really aware of how what he says can affect things beyond the scope of two people talking behind closed doors,” Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) said.

In hearings, members love trying to get Powell to talk about public policy. He’s gotten a lot of practice dodging those inquiries.

“You really wish that he could opine on policy proposals,” Tillis said. “At the one time, it’s annoying and admirable, because he’s staying in his lane.”

The ugly: Congress has a lot of love for Powell. But the good vibes are not universal.

Start with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). Warren is, by far, Powell’s fiercest critic on Capitol Hill, and she has proven a knack for pulling unvarnished remarks from the Fed chair during testy back-and-forths.

So we were a bit surprised when Warren told us she hasn’t had a meeting with Powell in years. The Massachusetts Democrat hasn’t had a sit-down with Powell since 2018 or a phone call since June 2021. That was just a few months before Warren famously declared Powell to be a “dangerous man.”

“I haven’t heard from [Powell] in years,” Warren said, though she said she was open to it, “of course.”

Lawmakers say the Federal Reserve will often reach out to them for meetings with Powell. Sometimes, that contact follows public criticism, including attacks on the Fed’s approach to bank supervision.

“I expressed my reservations very publicly in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece,” Lummis said, referring to past criticism of the central bank’s approach to crypto. “They reached out after that. Did I get a satisfactory response after that? No. But they did reach out.”

– Brendan Pedersen and Dave Clarke

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Editorial photos provided by Getty Images. Political ads courtesy of AdImpact.