Jones and Rattner: Getty Images; Jennings: Associated Press

Czarist rule

Government | Bypassing confirmation, a platoon of bureaucrats sets federal policy

Issue: "Do the math," Nov. 7, 2009

WASHINGTON-In Russia the last czar, Nicholas II, died in 1918, shot by Bolshevik revolutionaries. But the title did not die with his assassination. It simply migrated to Washington.

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.

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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. Jennings' 1988 advice to a male 15-year-old high school student who confided in him that he was involved with an older man: "I hope you knew to use a condom."

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.

Edward Lee Pitts
Edward Lee Pitts

Lee teaches journalism at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, and is the associate dean of the World Journalism Institute.


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