Janet Yellen will lay out the case for President-elect Joe Biden’s proposed $1.9tn relief package at her confirmation hearing as Treasury secretary on Tuesday, arguing that “the smartest thing we can do is act big”.
In prepared remarks obtained by the Financial Times ahead of her appearance before the Senate finance committee, Ms Yellen said the US risked “a longer, more painful recession” and “long-term scarring” if it did not move quickly to inject more government spending into the economy.
The former Federal Reserve chair also argued that worries about adding to the US budget deficit should take a back seat during this period.
“Neither the president-elect, nor I, propose this relief package without an appreciation for the country’s debt burden,” Ms Yellen said. “But right now, with interest rates at historic lows, the smartest thing we can do is act big. In the long run, I believe the benefits will far outweigh the costs, especially if we care about helping people who have been struggling for a very long time.”
Ms Yellen’s comments will reinforce Mr Biden’s push for $1.9tn in relief measures, which he outlined last week and wants Congress to pass urgently after his inauguration on Wednesday.
Mr Biden’s plan includes aid to states, direct cheques to individuals, an extension of jobless benefits, a boost to the child tax credit, and funding for the coronavirus response. The package would add to the fiscal stimulus already enacted during the pandemic by the outgoing president, Donald Trump, which included about $3tn in support at the start of the coronavirus crisis, and a further $900bn during the transition period.
In her remarks before the Senate panel, Ms Yellen will also say that her goal will be to rebalance the US economy as it recovers from the pandemic, in an attempt to tackle some of the country’s deep-seated racial and income disparities.
“People worry about a K-shaped recovery but well before Covid-19 infected a single American, we were living in a K-shaped economy, one where wealth (was) built on wealth while working families fell further and further behind. This is especially true for people of colour,” Ms Yellen said.
“We have to rebuild our economy so that it creates more prosperity for more people and ensures that American workers can compete in an increasingly competitive global economy,” she added.
Although the $1.9tn relief package is the immediate priority, Mr Biden’s team is also preparing a second multibillion-dollar recovery plan that would plough government funds into infrastructure, green energy, healthcare and education, at least partially funded by higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations.
Several senior Republicans have already criticised aspects of Mr Biden’s fiscal plan, but others have held their fire, suggesting there could be an opening for compromise.
In her prepared testimony, the former Fed chair harked back to the economic strife she witnessed as a child near the Brooklyn docks and pledged to pursue the administration’s goals “in a bipartisan way”.
She also made a light-hearted suggestion that her private life had prepared for her confirmation grilling. She quipped that her husband George Akerlof and son Robert Akerlof were “not only wonderful people; they are also wonderful — and opinionated — economists” so she was “used to debate about these issues” at home. “I’d welcome it in the Senate.”