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The Fed's latest interest rate hike has some congressional lawmakers worried

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Can the Federal Reserve bring down inflation, and if so, at what cost? Those were among the questions lawmakers put to Fed Chair Jerome Powell this week during a pair of hearings on Capitol Hill. For his part, Powell says the central bank is determined to get control over inflation. And he acknowledged there's a possibility that effort could trigger a recession. NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now with more. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: Good morning. So Scott, what everybody agrees on is inflation is too high. But there's less agreement on what to do about it. What came out of these hearings?

HORSLEY: That's right. The Fed chairman signaled very clearly that the central bank is prepared to do whatever it takes to get prices under control. The Fed has started raising interest rates pretty aggressively. That's making it more expensive to borrow money. Over time, that should start to cool off the very strong consumer demand we've been experiencing. What it won't do, though, is fix some of the supply shocks that are also fueling inflation, like the high price of oil following Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren pressed Powell about the limits of the central bank's power.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELIZABETH WARREN: Chair Powell, will gas prices go down as a result of your interest rate increase?

JEROME POWELL: I would not think so, no.

WARREN: That matters because gas prices are one of the single biggest drivers of inflation. Chair Powell, will the Fed's interest rate increases bring food prices down for families?

POWELL: No, I wouldn't say so. No.

HORSLEY: Powell acknowledged those are things the Federal Reserve just doesn't have much control over.

FADEL: Wow. So then why is the Fed raising interest rates?

HORSLEY: Because inflation is bigger than just gasoline and grocery prices...

FADEL: Right.

HORSLEY: ...As painful as those are. You know, prices are climbing throughout the economy. And fundamentally, that's because people want to buy more right now than businesses can deliver. So Powell and his colleagues want people to buy a little less, giving businesses time to catch up and letting prices level off. The way the Fed does that is by raising interest rates and making it more expensive to borrow money.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

POWELL: Our tools are - they're blunt. But they are the right tools to deal with broad aggregate demand. We can't help with energy and food prices. But we can help with aggregate demand. And we do that through the tools we have.

HORSLEY: For the first two years of the pandemic, the Fed kept interest rates close to zero, as it pumped tons of money into the economy.

FADEL: Right.

HORSLEY: Now it's moving in the opposite direction. Since March, the Fed has raised interest rates by 1 1/2 percentage points. And Powell says the central bank plans to keep raising interest rates until it sees compelling evidence that inflation is headed back towards its target of about 2%.

FADEL: And how is that strategy landing?

HORSLEY: You know, people really don't like inflation. And they want the Fed to get these prices under control.

FADEL: Right.

HORSLEY: For the most part, politicians have been giving the central bank room to do what it thinks is necessary to get inflation down. Certainly, President Biden has given Powell his full support. If anything, Republicans in Congress want to know what took the Fed so long. We will see, though, if that support continues once these rising interest rates start cutting into economic growth. And you heard some of that this week. Democratic Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts warned that as interest rates climb and people start to buy less, businesses might start laying people off.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AYANNA PRESSLEY: This policy choice would plunge millions of people back into unemployment, dampen wage growth and tip the economy into a recession.

HORSLEY: Powell said repeatedly this week the Fed is not trying to provoke a recession. In fact, he thinks economic growth in the second half of this year will be fairly strong. But even if there is an uptick in unemployment, Powell says the biggest - bigger risk would be doing nothing and letting high inflation get entrenched.

FADEL: NPR's Scott Horsley. Thanks, Scott.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOSHUA REDMAN AND THE BAD PLUS' "SILENCE IS THE QUESTION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.