While the White House and Congress lurch combatively from one budget crisis to the next, another Washington institution has been bolstering the economy steadily and with little fanfare since the 2008 financial crisis began.
And the Federal Reserve seems likely to keep its stimulus pumps running at least awhile longer – although minutes from a recent meeting show growing nervousness among U.S. central bankers over possible long-range harmful consequences, including steep inflation and instability in financial markets.
The Fed, under Chairman Ben Bernanke, has been keeping a key short-term interest rate near zero for over four years and is buying tens of billions of dollars in Treasury and mortgage bonds a month to keep downward pressure on longer-term interest rates and to provide liquidity to financial institutions.
Oh, and it's buying those bonds with money created out of thin air with the electronic equivalent of a printing press.
Minutes from the Fed's Jan. 29-30 policy meeting showed increasing debate over whether to end the huge stimulus sooner rather than later.
Still, the Fed voted 11-1 to continue its $85-billion monthly bond buying program for now.
However, the concerns were enough to drive European stocks sharply lower Thursday and contributed to a second day of declines for U.S. stocks – even though there's scant evidence of rising inflation.
U.S. consumer prices were flat last month, a new government report shows, another sign inflation remains in check.
The latest crisis for President Barack Obama and Congress is the approach of deep, mandatory "sequester" spending cuts due to hit March 1 absent a bipartisan deficit-reduction deal. So far Republicans who lead the House have rejected Obama's insistence that any agreement be "balanced" with both spending cuts and increased tax revenues.
U.S. policymakers barely averted a "fiscal cliff" at the end of last year.
"Managing from crisis to crisis every 60 to 90 days is absurd," House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said Thursday on MSNBC.
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