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Czarist Washington

By Kay Bailey Hutchison
Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Framers of the Constitution knew that the document founding our democracy must be the anchor of liberty and the blueprint for its preservation. Wisely, they provided a balance of powers to ensure that no individual and no single arm of government could ever wield unchecked authority against the American people.

Nearly 250 years later, these critical lines of separation are being obscured by a new class of federal officials. A few of them have formal titles, but most are simply known as "czars." They hold unknown levels of power over broad swaths of policy. Under the Obama administration, we have an unprecedented 32 czar posts (a few of which it has yet to fill), including a "car czar," a "pay czar" and an "information czar." There are also czars assigned to some of the broadest and most consequential topics in policy, including health care, terrorism, economics and key geographic regions.

So what do these czars do? Do they advise the president? Or do they impose the administration's agenda on the heads of federal agencies and offices who have been vetted and confirmed by the Senate? Unfortunately -- and in direct contravention of the Framers' intentions -- virtually no one can say with certainty what these individuals do or what limits are placed on their authority. We don't know if they are influencing or implementing policy. We don't know if they possess philosophical views or political affiliations that are inappropriate or overreaching in the context of their work.

This is precisely the kind of ambiguity the Framers sought to prevent. Article One tasks the legislative branch with establishing federal agencies, defining what they do, determining who leads them and overseeing their operations. Article Two requires the president to seek the advice and consent of the Senate when appointing certain officials to posts of consequence. Thus, authority is shared between government branches, guaranteeing the American people transparency and accountability.

As the senior Republican on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, I oversee legislation and agencies that cover policy areas as vast and varied as trade, technology, transit, consumer protection and commercial regulation. As many as 10 of the 32 czars functionally fall under my committee's jurisdiction. Yet neither I nor the committee chairman have clear authority to compel these czars to appear before our panel and report what they are doing. The Obama administration presented only two of these officials for our consideration before they assumed their duties. We have had no opportunity to probe the others' credentials.

Recently we saw the kinds of dangerous details that can slip by when a powerful federal official isn't put through the Senate confirmation process. Before assuming the post of "green jobs czar," Van Jones had engaged in such troublesome activities as endorsement of fringe theories about the Sept. 11 attacks. He has ties to a socialist group. The Senate confirmation process would typically provide an appropriate forum for identifying and discussing these types of issues and for allowing for public input. Jones's case highlighted the lack of accountability that is becoming commonplace under the Obama administration.

While Jones rightly resigned, there are dozens of other administration czars about whom we still know very little. It is Congress's duty to know who is serving at the highest levels of government, what they are doing, and what qualifications or complications these people bring to the job. It is also our responsibility to make this information known to the people who have elected us to serve and protect them. This is how we ensure accountability.

The deployment of this many czars sets a dangerous precedent that undermines the Constitution's guarantee of separated powers. It must be stopped. President Obama should submit each of his many policy czars to the Senate so that we can review their qualifications, roles and the limits on their authority. To deliver anything less is to deny the American public the accountability and transparency the Constitution guarantees.

The writer, a Republican senator from Texas, is running for governor of that state.

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