Too Many Presidential Czars Keep Congress in the Dark
"The biggest problems that we're facing right now have to do with George Bush trying to bring more and more power into the executive branch and not go through Congress at all. And that's what I intend to reverse when I'm president of the United States." -- Sen. Barack Obama, March 31, 2008
To say President Obama failed to follow through on this promise is an understatement. By appointing a virtual army of "czars" -- each wholly unaccountable to Congress yet tasked with spearheading major policy efforts for the White House -- in his first six months, the president has embarked on an end-run around the legislative branch of historic proportions.
To be sure, the appointment of a few special officers to play a constructive role in a given administration is nothing new. What is new is the elevation of so many czars, with so much authority on endless policy fronts. Vesting such broad authority in the hands of people not subjected to Senate confirmation and congressional oversight poses a grave threat to our system of checks and balances.
At last count, there were at least 32 active czars that we knew of, meaning the current administration has more czars than Imperial Russia.
The administration has a Mideast peace czar (not to be confused with the Mideast policy czar), a Sudan czar and a Guantanamo closure czar. Then there's the green jobs czar, sometimes in conflict with the energy czar, who talks to the technology czar, who sometimes crosses paths with the urban affairs czar. We mustn't forget the Great Lakes czar or the WMD czar, who no doubt works hand in hand with the terrorism czar. The stimulus accountability czar is going through a rough time right now, as is the TARP czar -- but thankfully they have to answer to the government performance czar. And seemingly everyone falls under the auspices of the information czar. In a government full of duplicative bureaucracies, adding more layers with overlapping responsibilities hardly seems the way to go.
Even Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd (W.Va.) was fearful enough to pen a letter to President Obama in February highlighting his concerns with the administration's tactics. The Constitution mandates that the Senate confirm Cabinet-level department heads and other appointees in positions of authority -- known as "principal officers." This gives Congress -- elected by the people -- the power to compel executive decision-makers to testify and be held accountable by someone other than the president. It also ensures that key appointees cannot claim executive privilege when subpoenaed to come before Congress.
As we move forward, proper oversight of the growing lineup of czars is essential. From orchestrating bailouts to making industrial policies to moving toward government-run national health care, Washington seems intent on sailing into uncharted waters -- and the czars are often steering the ship.
The car czar, who stepped down this month amid controversy over his former firm's role in a scandal, had been managing government's recent takeover of a huge swath of the domestic auto industry and making decisions for auto companies. The pay czar -- also known in White House circles as the "special master for compensation" -- has the power to reject or accept any current and future compensation for the top 100 earners at companies that received, in some cases under pressure, money from the Troubled Assets Relief Program. In the coming months he will decide the fate of $235 million in pending retention bonuses at AIG. And the health czar, meanwhile, has become as influential as perhaps anyone in the Obama administration, spearheading White House negotiations with doctors, hospitals and other health providers. She will play a key role in determining which medicines, treatments and cures are deemed necessary for the public.
The point here is not that President Obama's reliance on czars is illegal (although it does raise significant, unresolved constitutional issues). Nor is it that these czars are bad people. It's that we have not been able to vet them, and that we have no idea what they're doing. It's that candidate Obama made a pledge to keep Congress in the light. Yet less than six months after his inauguration, the president appears intent to keep Congress more and more in the dark. Dozens of czars at a time.
The writer, a Republican from Virginia, is the House minority whip.