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The U.S. Senate voted 84 to 15 on Monday to confirm Janet Yellen as the 78th Secretary of the Treasury.
Yellen, 74, is the first woman to hold the position in the Treasury’s 231-year history, and only the second person to ever have served as both Federal Reserve chair and Treasury Secretary (G. William Miller).
Her immediate challenge will be buoying the U.S. economy as COVID-19 vaccinations continue to roll out across the country. The statistics underscore the depth of the crisis that Yellen will attempt to address: about 10 million fewer people are without jobs compared to pre-pandemic levels, and workers in the bottom wage quartile are likely experiencing unemployment rates above 20%.
Yellen told Congress in her nomination hearing that bridging businesses and the unemployed into the post-pandemic world is her top priority.
“Neither the President-elect, nor I, propose this relief package without an appreciation for the country’s debt burden,” Yellen told the Senate Finance Committee in her nomination hearing Tuesday. “But right now, with interest rates at historic lows, the smartest thing we can do is act big.”
With COVID-19 cases still raging despite the vaccine rollout, Yellen will have to move swiftly to sell Congress on the Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion package. As proposed, the legislation would include additional $1,400 stimulus checks and an extra $400 per week in unemployment insurance benefits, among other provisions.
Republicans put up little opposition to her confirmation, with only 15 GOP senators voting no in the final vote on Monday. In her confirmation vote for Fed chair seven years ago, Yellen secured 11 GOP yes votes in a 56-26 vote (18 senators missed the vote due to the January 2014 blizzard).
Yellen’s responsibilities as Treasury Secretary will extend far beyond the stimulus bill.
On tax policy, Yellen said she would support a tax policy that supports government spending on infrastructure, manufacturing, and research and development.
“It’s very important that corporations and wealthy individuals pay their fair share,” Yellen said.
Yellen committed to working on multilateral trade agreements, a departure from the Trump administration’s unilateral approach. Specifically on tensions with China, Yellen promised to pay mind to issues like intellectual property theft.
In her nomination hearing, she touched on a number of other issues, expressing interest in 50-year ultra long U.S. government bonds and vocalizing her “particular concern” with the use of cryptocurrencies in illicit activities.
A key priority of hers will be addressing climate change. Describing the issue as an “existential threat,” she plans on appointing someone “at a very senior level” within the Treasury to focus specifically on financial system risks and tax benefits related to climate change.
UBS Global Wealth Management’s Mark Haefele wrote on Jan. 21 that Yellen’s remarks “reinforce our view of a world that will be more indebted, more sustainable, and more local in the coming years.”
Brian Cheung is a reporter covering the Fed, economics, and banking for Yahoo Finance. You can follow him on Twitter @bcheungz.