109 Iowa L. Rev. 117 (2023)
From its inception, the Federal Reserve has operated payment systems that let banks move money for their customers. Checks, wire transfers, and electronic consumer payments all happen thanks to the Federal Reserve. Congress by statute specified which banks get access to the Fed’s payment services. For more than a century, the Federal Reserve provided services to all legally eligible banks. But when the Federal Reserve received requests for payments access from a cannabis-focused credit union and a cryptocurrency custody bank (both of whom are legally eligible), it denied them. The Fed also issued sweeping guidelines claiming discretion to conduct risk vetting and deny bank requests. These guidelines apply to all banks and reverberate far beyond cannabis and crypto.
This Article examines whether the Federal Reserve’s payments discretion is as great as it now claims—a question that has been raised in five recent cases, but never answered. It concludes the Fed has overstepped. The language and structure of the Federal Reserve Act require that the Federal Reserve provide payment services to all eligible banks. In support of this statutory interpretation, the Article excavates long forgotten legislative history and more than a century of sometimes hidden Federal Reserve payments practices. It shows that although the Federal Reserve has some discretion over the payments it processes and terms under which it offers it payments services, the Fed’s discretion is not so broad that it can deny access to legally eligible banks. If the Fed wants to exclude banks, it should ask Congress to change the law.