In short, monetary policy and fiscal policy involve quite different sets of actors, decisions, and tools. Fiscal policy involves decisions about how much the government should spend, how much it should tax, and how much it should borrow. At the federal level, those decisions are made by the Administration and the Congress. Fiscal policy determines the size of the federal budget deficit, which is the difference between federal spending and revenues in a year. Borrowing to finance budget deficits increases the government's total outstanding debt.
As I have discussed, monetary policy is the responsibility of the Federal Reserve--or, more specifically, the Federal Open Market Committee, which includes members of the Federal Reserve's Board of Governors and presidents of Federal Reserve Banks. Unlike fiscal policy, monetary policy does not involve any taxation, transfer payments, or purchases of goods and services. Instead, as I mentioned, monetary policy mainly involves the purchase and sale of securities. The securities that the Fed purchases in the conduct of monetary policy are held in our portfolio and earn interest. The great bulk of these interest earnings is sent to the Treasury, thereby helping reduce the government deficit. In the past three years, the Fed remitted $200 billion to the federal government. Ultimately, the securities held by the Fed will mature or will be sold back into the market. So the odds are high that the purchase programs that the Fed has undertaken in support of the recovery will end up reducing, not increasing, the federal debt, both through the interest earnings we send the Treasury and because a stronger economy tends to lead to higher tax revenues and reduced government spending (on unemployment benefits, for example).
Even though our activities are likely to result in a lower national debt over the long term, I sometimes hear the complaint that the Federal Reserve is enabling bad fiscal policy by keeping interest rates very low and thereby making it cheaper for the federal government to borrow. I find this argument unpersuasive. The responsibility for fiscal policy lies squarely with the Administration and the Congress. At the Federal Reserve, we implement policy to promote maximum employment and price stability, as the law under which we operate requires. Using monetary policy to try to influence the political debate on the budget would be highly inappropriate. For what it's worth, I think the strategy would also likely be ineffective: Suppose, notwithstanding our legal mandate, the Federal Reserve were to raise interest rates for the purpose of making it more expensive for the government to borrow. Such an action would substantially increase the deficit, not only because of higher interest rates, but also because the weaker recovery that would result from premature monetary tightening would further widen the gap between spending and revenues. Would such a step lead to better fiscal outcomes? It seems likely that a significant widening of the deficit--which would make the needed fiscal actions even more difficult and painful--would worsen rather than improve the prospects for a comprehensive fiscal solution.
I certainly don't underestimate the challenges that fiscal policymakers face. They must find ways to put the federal budget on a sustainable path, but not so abruptly as to endanger the economic recovery in the near term. In particular, the Congress and the Administration will soon have to address the so-called fiscal cliff, a combination of sharply higher taxes and reduced spending that is set to happen at the beginning of the year. According to the Congressional Budget Office and virtually all other experts, if that were allowed to occur, it would likely throw the economy back into recession. The Congress and the Administration will also have to raise the debt ceiling to prevent the Treasury from defaulting on its obligations, an outcome that would have extremely negative consequences for the country for years to come. Achieving these fiscal goals would be even more difficult if monetary policy were not helping support the economic recovery.