By Michael A. Fletcher and Brady Dennis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
On paper, they are special advisers, chairmen of White House boards, special envoys and Cabinet agency deputies, asked by the president to guide high-priority initiatives. But critics call them "czars" whose powers are not subject to congressional oversight, and their increasing numbers have become a flash point for conservative anger at President Obama.
Lists drawn up by conservative groups detail as many as 40 czars linked to Obama, although some of the positions existed before he took office, and some did win Senate approval. There's "faith-based czar" Joshua DuBois, who heads the White House's Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, a post President George W. Bush created in 2001; "Afghanistan czar" Richard C. Holbrooke, appointed by Obama as special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan; "intelligence czar" Dennis C. Blair, the director of national intelligence, an office created in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks; "Mideast peace czar" George J. Mitchell; and "border czar" Alan Bersin, an assistant secretary of homeland security charged with improving security along the southern border.
Some of the czars are guiding the president on central policy issues. Carol M. Browner serves as Obama's assistant for energy and climate change; Paul A. Volcker chairs the president's Economic Recovery Advisory Board; and Nancy-Ann DeParle heads the White House Office of Health Reform.
Critics of the proliferation of czars say the White House uses the appointments to circumvent the normal vetting process required for Senate confirmation and to avoid congressional oversight. They mobilized recently with the resignation of Van Jones, an adviser to the White House Council on Environmental Quality who was known as the "green jobs czar." Jones had avoided the kind of vetting to which Cabinet officials are subjected; his past affiliations and comments were later unearthed by a conservative commentator.
Earlier controversy centered on "car czar" Steven Rattner, who abruptly resigned in July. After leading the administration's efforts to restructure Chrysler and General Motors, Rattner left amid reports that New York Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo was investigating the Quadrangle Group, an investment firm he co-founded.
The White House defends the use of special advisers to coordinate responses to problems involving several agencies.
"Lots of these are designed to bring many different efforts together and coordinate them in a way that is more structured and more efficient than the governmental work chart might ordinarily allow," said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs. Asked about accountability, he said that, ultimately, "the president is the person accountable that the policy is right."
Historically, presidents have long used special officials to deal with difficult problems. When the Mississippi River burst its levees in 1927, Calvin Coolidge invested extraordinary power in then-Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover to oversee relief efforts.
Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed a host of special advisers to coordinate policy to combat the Great Depression. Richard M. Nixon named a drug czar and an energy czar, and George W. Bush named czars to coordinate policy efforts on a range of issues. By one count, Bush had 36 czar positions filled by 46 people during his eight years as president.
Fueled by right-wing commentators such as Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, the issue has grown into a staple of anti-Obama activism. On Saturday, at a march in Washington protesting big government, some demonstrators carried signs saying "Czars belong in Russia."
Although the controversy is mostly fanned by Republicans, members of Congress from both parties have questioned czar appointments. After Jones's departure, Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.) called for Obama's czars to testify before Congress about their "authority and responsibilities." Jones's "ability to slip into a position of power without due congressional diligence only further underscores the necessity for a confirmation process," McHenry said.
In a speech on the Senate floor Tuesday, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) called the growing number of special policy advisers "antidemocratic."
"They are a poor example of a new era of transparency which was promised to this country," he said. "They are a poor way to manage the government, and they seem to me to be the principal symptom of this administration's eight-month record of too many Washington takeovers."
Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), chairman of the House Republican Conference, called on Obama to suspend any further czar appointments until Congress examines the duties and constitutionality of those roles.
Pence's call came after Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) introduced legislation in July that would effectively end the president's power to appoint special advisers.
Kingston, who has compiled a list of 34 Obama czars, said transparency is the issue. "These guys don't get vetted," he said in an interview. "They have staff and offices and immense responsibility. All that needs to come before Congress."
On the Democratic side, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.) wrote to Obama in February asserting that "White House staff have taken direction and control of programmatic areas that are the statutory responsibility of Senate-confirmed officials" and criticizing their "rapid and easy accumulation of power."
He added, "As presidential assistants and advisers, these White House staffers are not accountable for their actions to the Congress, to Cabinet officials, and to virtually anyone but the president."
G. Calvin Mackenzie, a Colby College professor who studies presidential appointments, said it is impossible to judge the effectiveness of policy czars through the years.
And although objections have grown with the number of special advisers, he does not expect Obama -- or any of his successors -- to be deterred from appointing them.
"One of the great advantages they bring is that you get people who are really loyal and the president is their only constituency," Mackenzie said. "Administrators in every kind of setting want that. They all try to have people who can cut through the administrative structures they inherit."