By Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 20, 2010; A02
Ken Feinberg is just the sort of dictator America needs right now.
The fast-talking lawyer with the Boston accent has had some of the best titles in government, or anywhere else: 9/11 special master, pay czar and now the 20 Billion Dollar Man, in charge of doling out BP's money to Gulf Coast residents.
In these days of populist rage, it's a dangerous business being a "czar" who answers to nobody. But Feinberg wears the imperial crown proudly. "I'm totally independent," he told a gathering of the Economic Club of Washington on Monday morning. "I do not answer to the administration, nor to BP."
The Economic Club's president, David Rubenstein of the Carlyle Group, asked Czar Feinberg if he needs legislation or guidance "from any other authority" to do his job.
"Guidance is fine," he said. "We don't need any legislation. . . . Ultimately it's my call."
Feinberg, who said under questioning that his work as the 9/11 special master was "a gift to the country," referred to himself in the second person as he described exchanges with hypothetical supplicants.
"Mr. Feinberg, I own a restaurant in the North End of Boston. I have the best shrimp scampi in the city. I can't get gulf shrimp. Where's my money?"
"Highly unlikely," Feinberg answered Feinberg.
"Mr. Feinberg, I own a motel on the beach. There's oil there, and I've lost customers."
"Pay them. Pay the claim," Feinberg ordered.
"I own a golf course 50 miles from the gulf. I'm down 30 percent. People aren't coming to play golf."
"Dubious," Feinberg ruled.
Rubenstein dared to ask his guest an impertinent question: "Ken, do you ever have any self-doubt?" Audience members laughed.
Feinberg said doubt is "a good thing; just make sure it doesn't paralyze you."
There is no danger of this happening to Feinberg. His brash style is both refreshing (he gets things done far more efficiently than government bureaucrats ever could) and unsettling (he's neither confirmed by Congress nor accountable to President Obama). As with the independent commission to solve the debt crisis, Feinberg represents another handoff of authority to the unelected by a government that can't solve big problems.
Obama's use of unaccountable "czars" is no worse than his predecessor's, but the opposition has long complained about it. In the case of the BP escrow fund that Feinberg administers, a few prominent conservatives have even seen a (dubious) precedent in Hitler's rise in Germany.
"That's ridiculous. That's ridiculous," Feinberg said in typical form when asked about the Nazi comparison. "I mean, in comparison to that, it's ridiculous." In fact, Feinberg judged, "I don't see any justifiable criticism."
Yet there is something almost extragovernmental about what Feinberg does, and the special master admits that his activities are special. "Every once in a while there is a public policy dilemma that requires public policymakers to think out of the box," he said Monday, describing his function as a "creative alternative to conventional thinking." And conventional governing.
Feinberg told the economics group that he would not turn over individuals' financial information to the IRS. Even his own pay, from BP, is "between myself and BP," he said. He explained how his special status allows him to continue making money in his private law practice. He said with some pride that he hasn't "dealt with anybody at the White House," and that he interacts with Treasury officials only "at my request."
At the moment, Feinberg is giving Gulf Coast residents a hard sell to keep them out of court. To those who would rather sue, he says: "You're crazy to do so. . . . I'll be much more generous than any court would be." Marketing phrases tumble from his lips: "You're under no obligation. . . . Come in and immediately receive a check. . . . If you decide after that to litigate, you still keep the check."
The 64-year-old Feinberg has an impressive résumé of special masterships, resolving payments for Agent Orange, asbestos and the Virginia Tech shooting, among others. He delivered his standard joke on Monday about how his wife doesn't mind him being a special master but declines to be identified as a "special mistress."
Certainly, Feinberg enjoys his special powers. He referred to the period of the BP oil spill before he was appointed as "pre-me." He spoke of Citigroup, Bank of America and Chrysler being "under my thumb." He told the audience that "I'm very popular these days" among vendors seeking some of his fund's billions.
Popular enough to confer that second-person status on himself. "Mr. Feinberg, I don't know what I'm going to do," he told the audience, putting himself in the position of still another hypothetical supplicant. "I'm a sixth-generation oyster harvester, and my oyster-harvesting days are over. Now, what are you going to do for me?"
Relax, oysterman. Feinberg is a benevolent dictator.