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Czar trouble

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By Dana Milbank
Friday, October 23, 2009

October revolutions just ain't what they used to be.

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It was 92 years, almost to the day, since the Bolsheviks stormed the Winter Palace. Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), as fine a duo as Lenin and Trotsky, presided over the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which for a couple of hours Thursday morning seemed more like the Council of People's Commissars.

The enemy: "czars" in the Obama administration, who now number more than all the Romanov czars who ruled Russia for three centuries.

"The title 'czar' has been used more in Washington in recent years than anywhere, anytime since 1917, when Czar Nicholas II of Russia came to his unhappy ending," Chairman Lieberman said after his duma was gaveled to order. "The main questions raised in what might be called the current anti-czarist uprising seem to be one, have presidents of both parties, including President Obama, consolidated power excessively in the White House through the appointment of these officials, and, if so, is there anything Congress can or should do about it?"

Well, if they were real revolutionaries, they could take the czars to Yekaterinburg and shoot them, the way the Bolsheviks shot Nicholas. So far, nobody favors anything that extreme, with the possible exception of Fox News's Glenn Beck, whom two committee Democrats referred to Thursday as the one "whose name shall not be mentioned" because of the rebellion he stirred up against Obama's czars. But most people agree that presidents of both parties are circumventing the legislature by using czars, who aren't confirmed by Congress and needn't testify before Congress.

On Thursday, the lawmakers summoned Tom Ridge, who was a Bush administration czar, to discuss czar problems. "Some of today's White House czars have come to their positions with little public clarification of duty," Czar Ridge testified, adding that "this creates both a potential management problem and the appearance of potential conflict."

A panel of academic types nodded in agreement. "If the number of czars proliferates, they can clog and confuse the policy-making process," warned James Pfiffner of George Mason University. Raising the specter of England's King George III, the professor exhorted: "It is the duty of Congress to assert its own constitutional role."

Collins, the panel's ranking Republican, was ready to assert hers. The usually mild lawmaker showed uncharacteristic pique as she protested czar proliferation. "This bumper crop of czars has left the public and the Congress with many worrisome, bottom-line questions," she said. "Who is in charge?"

She proposes forcing more czars to testify before Congress, but the chairman offered a somewhat gentler solution. "I will ask the witnesses if there isn't some more American title that we could use instead of 'czar,' " he announced, calling the term "ethnically inappropriate" and a bit too "autocratic."

Recognizing a chance for shtick, Lieberman described a scene from "Fiddler on the Roof" when one of the townsfolk asks the rabbi if there is a prayer for the czar. "The rabbi answers, 'Yes, my son, there is. It is: God bless and keep the czar -- far away from us.' May I paraphrase that prayer this morning: God bless and keep the title 'czar' forevermore away from the American government. I'm going to try to do my best not to use the word 'czar' in this regard again."

Collins was not impressed. "I will continue to call them czars," she informed him.

Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) had a solution, based on his service in the Nixon administration. "The White House is a court, the president is the king, the White House staffers are courtiers," he said, "and it is the century-long duty of every courtier to keep everybody else from having access to the king."

Lieberman mulled over this substitution of "courtier" for "czar." "That actually describes more appropriately the powers," the chairman said. "But it's not quite American enough."

The king did not send any of his courtiers to the hearing. But one courtier, White House counsel Greg Craig, did send a note to the lawmakers. "Some have embraced a list of 32 supposed 'czars' despite the fact that nine of those positions are subject to Senate confirmation, 15 existed in previous administrations, and 16 have testified before Congress this year," he wrote. "Under this definition the Bush administration reportedly had 36 czar positions," he added.

Even a conservative count puts the Obama total at 18, which is a czar too far for most tastes. But the president and his courtiers needn't fear: It would take a highly unified legislature to force the executive to accept restrictions on his czars, and that would mean convincing people such as Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.) of the need for action.

"I have so many thoughts just running through my head, I don't know where to start," said Burris, who like the czars was not elected to his position. Given his chance to question the witnesses, he rambled on without cohesion for several minutes -- "I'm more frustrated than I am with questions," he explained -- before concluding: "This is --. This is --. Thank you, Mr. Chairman, I'm done."

Had the Bolsheviks been like this, the czars might still be in Russia.


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