MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
The United States has had 77 Treasury secretaries in the last 231 years. So far, they have all - all - been men. Well, that is about to change. President-elect Joe Biden plans to nominate Janet Yellen to head the Treasury Department. If confirmed, she'll have her hands full shaping policy as the U.S. continues to dig its way out of the deep economic hole caused by the coronavirus pandemic. NPR's Scott Horsley is on the story. He's with us now.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Mary Louise.
KELLY: So Janet Yellen is a woman. What other qualities does she bring to the table?
HORSLEY: Well, she's already broken one glass ceiling. She was the first woman to head the Federal Reserve. She did that for four years, and she was a vice chair before that. So she helped steer the central bank through the end of the last financial crisis and the beginning of what would become a record-long period of economic growth. She was also a top White House economist in the Clinton administration. So if she's confirmed as Treasury secretary, that would sort of round out the economic trifecta for Janet Yellen.
She is a familiar face. The stock market took the news of her nomination in stride this afternoon. She's known as someone who's well-prepared, someone who can build consensus. She won some GOP support back in 2014 when then-President Obama named her as Fed chair. And she's also popular with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.
KELLY: Just to flesh out this role a little bit more, the Treasury secretary generally is seen as the administration's point person on economic policy. And fair to say Biden and his team will be inheriting a very complicated economic situation.
HORSLEY: Yeah, it's an economy that is on the mend but still faces really big challenges. The pandemic triggered, of course, a really sharp contraction of the economy last spring. It's bounced partway back, but that recovery appears to be losing steam. And federal relief efforts are also running out of gas just as the pandemic itself is getting a second wind.
We've, of course, seen alarming spikes in new infections. Hospitals around the country are filling up. That's prompting new restrictions on business activity. And, of course, it's making consumers more wary about going out and spending money, which is not what retailers want to hear as they get ready for the all-important holiday shopping season.
KELLY: You just said, Scott, federal relief efforts are running out of gas. Do we know what the new administration's plan is to do something about that?
HORSLEY: Well, they're hoping something gets done before they take office. The president-elect and his team have been urging Congress to pass some new coronavirus relief now. Fed Governor Lael Brainard, who served alongside Yellen at the central bank and was also in the running for the Treasury job, has been stressing that federal relief efforts are - really helped to jump-start the recovery in the spring and early summer. And she's urging lawmakers not to pull the plug on that help prematurely.
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LAEL BRAINARD: We will have a much better, stronger, more inclusive recovery if we do, in fact, continue to see that targeted fiscal support that was so important to the bounce back early in the recovery.
HORSLEY: You know, we've got millions of people who have exhausted their regular unemployment benefits and are now relying on emergency aid. We've got millions more who are counting on a federal program for people who ordinarily don't qualify for jobless benefits. Both those programs are set to expire in just over a month.
KELLY: Speaking of pulling the plug, though, if I could focus you for a sec on the current Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin - he is pulling the plug on some other kinds of help. Explain what that would mean.
HORSLEY: Yeah, these are Fed emergency lending programs, which haven't made a whole lot of loans. But their supporters say the simple fact that they existed helped to keep credit flowing smoothly. Congressional Democrats are blasting the outgoing Treasury secretary for, you know, taking some economic pills out of the medicine chest in what are the waning days of the Trump administration.
KELLY: All right. Thank you, Scott.
HORSLEY: You're welcome.
KELLY: That's NPR's chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley on the news that President-elect Biden intends to nominate former Fed Chair Janet Yellen as his Treasury secretary. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.