In arguing that President Reagan ''should have the right to put in place the kinds of (monetary and economic) policies he was elected for,'' a top US Treasury official was merely underscoring the deep-seated problem that has faced virtually every president since Eisenhower: how to deal with the power of the Federal Reserve Board. The Fed regulates the nation's supply of money and credit and is thus one of the most important agencies in the American governmental system.
The Reagan administration - by studying legislative changes that could actually curb the role and makeup of the nation's central bank - is taking a course that could add up to a particularly bold challenge to the Fed.
The administration's public concern is that ''erratic'' growth in the nation's money supply could undermine economic recovery later this year. The issue, however, is deeper. It goes to the very heart of how US economic policy is formulated, and by whom. For since its inception back in 1913 by the Wilson administration, the Fed has become increasingly independent of electoral politics, as well as of any genuine public accountability.
Economic conditions when the Fed was first created were quite different from now. For one thing, the nation was on the gold standard, with its ''fixed'' relationship of money value to a particular commodity. Moreover, until the mid- 1930s, both the treasury secretary and comptroller of the currency were members of the Fed's board of governors. Now, thanks to lengthy 14-year terms for board members, presidents invariably find themselves facing Fed members appointed by prior administrations. The current chairman, Paul Volcker, for example, was appointed by President Carter back in 1979.
Surely, there is a strong case to be made for ensuring a high degree of independence for the Fed. Not to do so, after all, would be to subject the nation's money supply to the type of often blatant political considerations that move Congress and administrations in devising legislation. But there is also something to be said for a much greater degree of public accountability in money decisions than has been the case in the past several decades. Under the present system, not only are crucial Fed policies made in virtual secrecy, but accountability is so diffused among all the various economic institutions of government - Congress, the White House, and the Fed - as to make almost no one, or no institution, ultimately responsible for the nation's fiscal and monetary policy.
What seems realistic would be legislation allowing Fed officials maximum independence and privacy in the process of reaching policy decisions but requiring full and open public exposure in the actual decisionmaking meetings. The Shadow Open Market Committee, a private group of business and university economists, has long favored steps along this line.
Another logical consideration would be to make the term of the chairman, and perhaps even the cochairman, coterminous with a new administration. The remaining members of the seven-person board, however, would continue to be staggered, thus still allowing a high degree of independence.
Presidents and Congresses are ultimately responsible to the American public. Ways must be found to ensure that is also the case for the Federal Reserve Board.