Czarist Rule

Tuesday's World Events   —   Posted on November 3, 2009

(by Edward Lee Pitts, WorldMag.com) – Today there are between 30 and 40 so-called czars serving in the Obama White House. There is a Great Lakes czar, a pay czar, a weapons of mass destruction czar, and a government performance czar. Could a “czar performance czar” be far behind?

Designated as special advisors to the president and tasked with over­seeing special initiatives, the American version of czars is blurring the lines of authority and responsibility. We have the auto recovery czar who must somehow work with the car czar. And there is a trifecta of environmentally conscious czars: the green jobs czar, the environment czar, and the climate czar.

It is no wonder that during September’s massive conservative march on Washington to protest big government, one of the most popular signs exclaimed: “Czars belong in Russia.”

The practice is not new. Franklin D. Roosevelt used several “czars” during the Great Depression, Jimmy Carter appointed an “inflation czar,” and George W. Bush created the faith-based czar. But lawmakers from both parties, concerned that the practice has escalated under Obama, are now starting to question the constitutionality of the czars.

“They seem to me to be the principal symptom of this administration’s eight-month record of too many Washington takeovers,” worries Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.

Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., the 91-year-old dean of senators known for carrying around a pocket-sized copy of the Constitution, warned Obama in a letter that the czars “threaten the Constitutional system of checks and balances.” Most of the czars do not have to be confirmed by the Senate and are not required to testify before Congress, allowing the White House to bypass Capitol Hill when it comes to many high-priority initiatives.

“Too often, I have seen these lines of authority and responsibility become tangled and blurred, sometimes purposely, to shield information and to obscure the decision-making process,” Byrd told the president.

The practice also has already come back to bite the Obama White House:

• The green jobs czar, Van Jones, resigned over revelations that he favored investigating whether President George W. Bush allowed the 9/11 attacks to occur as a pretext for invading Iraq.

• The car czar, Steven Rattner, resigned after the New York attorney general’s office began investigating an investment firm he co-founded.

• And last week more than 50 House Republicans called for the ouster of the “safe schools czar,” Kevin Jennings, who founded the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network and has written extensively about his own drug use. …

Such controversy spurred another Democrat, Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., to hold a Senate hearing this month on the czar issue. But the White House irked Feingold by not sending an official to testify. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs shrugged off the hearing: “I would assume that Congress and Sen. Feingold have more weighty topics to grapple with than something like this.”

Congressional lawmakers believe the issue is weighty enough to introduce legislation requiring Senate confirmation of czars, who with their appointments can earn up to $172,000 per year (not counting staff, office, and travel budgets). “It seems President Obama is in the midst of forming a parallel government to push his policies,” said Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., the bill’s main sponsor.

Meanwhile, nearly 200 non-czarist executive branch nominees are awaiting formal Senate approval now a year after Obama’s election. That includes 146 who still need Democratic committee chairmen to begin the confirmation hearing process. While Obama’s own party deals with this logjam, a platoon of bureaucrats, who are unaccountable to congressional oversight, will continue to spearhead sweeping areas of the federal government, from overhauling the nation’s healthcare system to overseeing corporate bailouts and executive compensation reforms.

Copyright ©2009 WORLD Magazine.  Reprinted here November 3rd from the November 7, 2009 issue with permission from World Magazine. Visit the website at WorldMag.com.

Questions

1. What types of czars have some other presidents had?

2. If previous presidents appointed czars, why are Congressmen questioning the appointing of czars under President Obama?

3. In his letter to President Obama, why did Democratic Senator Robert Byrd criticize the president’s practice of appointing czars?

4. a) How did the White House respond to a Senate hearing on czars?
b) What do you think of this response?

5. What does Republican Congressman Jack Kingston see as President Obama’s motive for appointing a large number of czars?

6. Think about our system of checks and balances, and the issue of accountability in our government. Why do you think it is important for all decision-makers and advisors (people in authority) to be accountable to the people in some way?
(Read the “Background” below, and visit the website links under “Resources” for further information.)


Free Answers — Sign-up here to receive a weekly email with answers.

Background

ON THE CABINET:

The purpose of the Cabinet is to advise the President on matters relating to the duties of their respective offices. As the President’s closest and most trusted advisors, members of the Cabinet usually attend weekly meetings with the President. (Per wikipedia.org, President Obama did not meet with his assembled Cabinet until three months into his administration.) The 15 Secretaries (Cabinet members) from the executive departments are appointed by the President, and they must be confirmed by a majority vote (51 votes) of the Senate. White House staff positions like chief of staff and press secretary do not require Senate confirmation.
The president’s “czars” (advisors) have become a point of controversy among his opponents because these appointees are not required to go through the same Senate confirmation as cabinet-level officials.

ON THE PRESIDENTIAL APPOINTMENT OF CZARS:

  • … appointing this number of unelected and unaccountable czars assumes on its face that our nation is something other than a democratic Republic. Our Founding Fathers created a unique and brilliant system of representation by the people, for the people, maintained through an election process. We do not live in a Democracy where the majority always rules, but under a carefully constructed system of checks and balances that allows our government to function without stifling the voices of minority interests.
  • By contrast, President Obama has appointed czars who, in most cases, have completely circumvented the necessary vetting processes that have existed for decades. Important jobs in the Executive branch are supposed to be vetted through the Senate confirmation process and even when approved, they are still subject to some measure of Congressional oversight as a check on Executive power. Few of the czars, however, have been required to go through this process. And while Senate nomination hearings are rarely pleasant for any Presidential appointee – especially when they’re run by a political party who opposes the appointee’s political views – they are necessary and important. Senate confirmation hearings give an appointee’s proponents, and detractors, an equal opportunity to air any and all issues that may affect the appointees’ decision-making and ultimately, the American people. Thus “minority” voices are heard, and a key component of the governmental process in our Republic is satisfied.
  • Trouble always follows circumvention of this process. Take Van Jones, for example, President Obama’s Green Jobs Czar who recently resigned. It is doubtful that Jones would have made it through the Senate confirmation process. Many of his past statements, made in speeches and to the press, sound absurdly radical even to those on the proverbial Left. At the very least, Jones’ appointment and recent resignation leaves a blot on the President’s record. It also makes the Administration look as though it is less serious about policy, and more serious about pandering to major campaign donors or the special interests that want a certain individual given power to tackle a particular political issue. And each of these czars makes well over six figures, not counting the tax dollars allotted to their personal staff, budget and travel expenses. The best-case scenario is that all of this cheapens the processes and appearance of our government.
  • At worst, it is downright dangerous for the American people. These czars aren’t required to go through background checks. Since they “serve at the pleasure of the President,” they are immune from Congressional oversight, and according to one legal expert in a recent review of the practical legal issues at hand, existing Supreme Court precedent would even keep these czars from being forced to reply to Congressional subpoenas, since they can hide almost anything under the umbrella of “Executive Privilege.” Each Presidential czar therefore has a great deal of power, unprecedented access to official and perhaps even classified materials, yet they are accountable to no one but the President. That is an unacceptable loophole in our government process. (from nrb.org/index.php/mediacenter/president_s_blog/33_czars_and_counting)

Resources

For a list of previously appointed czars as well as those newly created by President Obama, go to washingtonpost.com.

Read about the president’s Cabinet at bensguide.gpo.gov/9-12/government/national/cabinet.html.