Posted by MataHarley on 5 March, 2009 at 2:25 pm. 11 comments already!

“The rapid and easy accumulation of power by White House staff can threaten the constitutional system of checks and balances.”

Senator Robert Byrd, (D-W.Va.)

Late February, I archived a little ditty from the NYTs about Sen. Robert Byrd’s letter to Obama, chastising him for attempting to usurp Congressional power with his over use of administrative czars.

“The rapid and easy accumulation of power by White House staff can threaten the Constitutional system of checks and balances,” Byrd wrote in a letter to Obama. “At the worst, White House staff have taken direction and control of programmatic areas that are the statutory responsibility of Senate-confirmed officials.”

Byrd specifically cited the creation of a new White House Office of Energy and Climate Change, which is headed by Carol Browner. He also noted new offices for health reform and urban affairs policy and the appointment of White House staff to coordinate on technology and management performance policies.

He also listed numerous examples from the administrations of Presidents Richard Nixon and George W. Bush of officials who directed policy as White House assistants.

“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 wrote.

Byrd’s legimate worry is that these czars are considered part of the WH administration, and are not subject to confirmation hearings. Nor are they easy to get to testify in front of Congressional committees.

With all the fuh-fer-rah that the Democrats pitched by the Bush admin employees (i.e. Rove, eta) not testifing at their witch hunt trials, you haven’t heard a peep of outcry from the Dems on Obama’s stacking the WH czar deck with employees who escape similar Congressional oversight and scrutiny.


As the Politico pointed out in their article the same day, Byrd wanted Obama to ” limit claims of executive privilege while also ensuring that the White House czars don’t have authority over Cabinet officers confirmed by the Senate.”

Perhaps Obama’s answer to that can be found in the quasi-victory of getting Karl Rove and Harriet Miers to testify INRE the fired US attorneys. Let’s just say that Obama has limited their “executive privileges” with “preconditions”. Listening to Rove on a talking head circuit, the deal was struck with no cameras, but with the testimony transcript being available to the public afterwards. However the line of questioning was also limited.

Since then, the media – johnny-on-the-spot to condemn the Bush admin for the same “dodge” of oversight and scrutiny at every opportunity – hasn’t bothered to register complaints about this unprecedented expanse of empowered czars in the Obama WH… and any “preconditions” he may impose on Congressional questioning of his own czars in the future.

Until today, that is. And from a very unlikely source.

Tom Hamburger and Christi Parsons from the LA Times has picked up the ball… tho late… and taking it further down the field with their article today, President Obama’s czar system concerns some.

As President Obama names more policy czars to his White House team — high-level staff members who will help oversee the administration’s top initiatives — some lawmakers and Washington interest groups are raising concerns that he may be subverting the authority of Congress and concentrating too much power in the presidency.

The idea of these “super aides,” who will work across agency lines to push the president’s agenda, is not a new one. President Nixon may have named the first “czar” with his appointment of William E. Simon to handle the 1970s energy crisis. Other presidents have followed suit.

But none has embraced the concept, presidential scholars say, to the extent that Obama has.

He has appointed special advisors who will work from inside the White House on healthcare, the economy, energy and urban issues, with more to come.

Jim Messina, the Deputy WH Chief of Staff (or Rahm’bo lite…), insists this massive shadow cabinet staff is necessary for the vast array of issues the administration faces. Obama, evidently, believes that more chefs will improve the taste of the stew, and reduce the cooking time.

Instead, this massive shadow system of administrative czars may be overstepping the bounds of Presidential authority.

It’s far too early to tell whether Obama’s quest for efficiency will lead to overstepping the bounds of presidential authority, but the latest appointment announcement could offer a few clues.

This week, he named two women to lead his effort to overhaul the nation’s healthcare system. One of them, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, was tapped to be Health and Human Services secretary. At her confirmation hearings, senators will be able to probe her views on health policy and demand detailed documentation of her credentials.

But the other, Nancy-Ann DeParle, who was named health czar, can begin work right away, without outside review of her abilities or opinions. And whereas lawmakers can ask Sebelius for testimony in the future and control her budget, DeParle may remain largely outside the gaze of Congress.

~~~

In addition to naming DeParle to coordinate healthcare policy, Obama has tapped Carol Browner to be White House energy czar, a post that could overlap with the functions of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Energy Department and other agencies. Adolfo Carrion Jr., a former Bronx borough president, is urban affairs czar, a job that may dovetail with the functions of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. And Paul A. Volcker, Obama’s big-picture economic czar, must coordinate with the Treasury Department and other agencies.

The confusion about competing roles played by czars and their Cabinet counterparts was on display Monday as White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs tried to explain how authority would be divided between DeParle and Sebelius as they steer health reform through Congress.

At first, he declared that DeParle “will be in charge.” Then he acknowledged a role for Sebelius and others.

“I think obviously this is something that spans across many platforms, not unlike, say, something like energy independence, that a lot of people that work in this building and in different agencies will be involved in,” he said, pledging to get back to reporters with details about how the health policy team will work.

Poor Gibbs… looking more and more like an ostracized Scott McClellon here. (i.e. calling the Obama v Rush public battles “counterproductive” on the same day the Politico exposes it of being the brain child of Obama operatives. oops…)

This plan for a “strong, centralized White House organization” is no surprise. Even prior to Obama’s Inauguration, John Podesta was telling us to expect it as something “that grew naturally out of his disciplined presidential campaign.” Podesta, however, chooses to dismiss any potential for these czars to undermine the authority of Cabinet agencies. And Messina states the czars rank below Cabinet positions.


This, however, doesn’t ally Byrd’s concerns one bit. Per his spokesman, Jesse Jacobs:

“If the czars are working behind the scenes and the secretaries will be the mouthpieces of the administration, it calls into question who is actually making the policy decision,” he said.“Whoever is making the policy decisions needs to be accountable and available to Congress and the American public.”

Ahhh… that “Delegator-in-Chief” title is starting to be more relevant every day.

Byrd’s not the lone ranger here. Even the beltway interest groups for the related czars are trying to figure out who knows and decides what for Obama policy. i.e. using a recent incident with Carol Browner:

Browner, whose title is special advisor to Obama on climate change and energy, told reporters two weeks ago that the administration soon would propose new rules to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from a variety of industries. Obama’s EPA administrator had hinted at such a possibility, but had not made it clear how things would unfold.

Browner’s statement set off a nervous response among a few Washington interest groups that objected to the executive branch unilaterally taking the lead on regulating a substance as ubiquitous as carbon.

“The issues are important enough that you have to have the give and the take of the congressional process — and do this in the open,” said former Michigan Gov. John Engler, who heads the National Assn. of Manufacturers.

At least one senator wanted to ask Browner about exactly that in a confirmation hearing. As a czar and not a Cabinet secretary, however, she did not have to answer questions on Capitol Hill.

“The overall concern is, Carol Browner has been appointed to coordinate all this energy policy,” said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.). “What’s her role going to be? She’s not going to be going through a confirmation process. While [agency directors] had to come to Congress and answer questions, she didn’t.”

Paul Light of New York University, does have Constitutional concerns about the use of so many czars. But he’s focusing first on what may be the inefficiency of too many cooks in the kitchen, and the separation of their authority.

Paul Light of New York University, an expert on the presidency, said Byrd has a valid constitutional concern about Obama’s use of czars. Light too is worried about Obama’s expansion of the czar system, but his apprehension is focused on more-practical concerns.

He points out that previous presidential czars became frustrated because they had no permanent staff, and their power was diffuse and unclear. Besides, he said, “there are so many czars in this White House, they’ll be constantly bumping in to each other.”

Excerpts from a rare mention of the Obama czars back in Dec by WSJ have a few more thoughts by Light:

“There’ve been so many czars over last 50 years, and they’ve all been failures,” said Paul Light, an expert on government at New York University. “Nobody takes them seriously anymore.” He pointed to officials placed in charge of homeland security and drug policy.

The problem is that “czars” are meant to be all-powerful people who can rise above the problems that plague the federal agencies, he said, but in the end, they can’t.

“We only create them because departments don’t work or don’t talk to each other,” Mr. Light said, adding that creation of a White House post doesn’t usually change that. “It’s a symbolic gesture of the priority assigned to an issue, and I emphasize the word symbolic. When in doubt, create a czar.”

Well, at least Obama’s creating jobs… even if they are at the taxpayers expense and provide little effective use.

Even in the earlier WSJ article, more questioned the effectiveness of czars… even the fewer numbers of them in previous administrations.

For Mr. Obama, the goal is to give special attention to the issues he cares most about, said a transition official. The transition team is currently reviewing campaign promises and options as officials figure out how many more of these jobs are needed.

New York City housing commissioner Shaun Donovan was picked to be secretary of Housing and Urban Development in Obama’s cabinet.
The official said naming a White Office-level aide to shepherd a policy makes it very clear who is in charge and accountable for results. “That way there’s no questions about turf,” he said.

But turf battles don’t disappear with White House czars and may get worse, say some veterans.

If a czar appears to be dictating policy rather than coordinating it, cabinet secretaries may resent it, said Andrew Card, longtime chief of staff to President George W. Bush. “It will I think have a tendency to cause cabinet members to feel as if they’re subordinate,” Mr. Card says.

Jay Hakes, a historian of U.S. energy policy, said he thinks Ms. Browner is ideally suited for the energy position, but notes the potential for fallout, having studied the administrations of Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter, who all had energy “czars” of one kind or another. “A lot of cabinet secretaries end up getting frustrated because aides at the White House wind up telling them what to do,” he said.

With so many in the Obama administration immune from Congressional oversight, and the turf battles that may arise between the cabinet vs czar authority, we can be sure of two things…

1: That we – along with Congress members – are unlikely to know what’s going on behind the scenes, and who’s dictating policy

2: And to whom shall we, and industry specific groups, listen to as the final authority on policy between the two administrative warring factions?

Then, of course, the most worrisome to me personally…. is there any media or Democrat – other than Sen. Byrd – who will dare to call attention to Presidential abuse of authority with the use of so many outside Congressional oversight?

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