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Czar Gazing: White House “Super Staffers” and Agency Auxiliaries

While no one honestly thinks the U.S. is in danger of being transformed into a czarist autocracy, more than a few citizens of this democracy are uncomfortable with the steady stream of Obama administration appointees, known as “czars,” who are often answerable only to the White House.  We decided to take a closer look at this often-misunderstood shorthand term.

The term “czar” is used to describe presidential advisors about as frequently as “gate” is used to describe any Washington scandal.  But not all czars are not created equal.

And not all of them really deserve to be labeled “czars,” given the immense power that term connotes.

The Obama White House, following the lead of administrations before it, has appointed at least four special advisors to oversee, coordinate or implement administration policies in key areas that are answerable only to the White House – energy and climate, healthcare, urban affairs, the economy, and domestic violence. These appointments have ruffled the most political feathers and raised questions about the “czarist” approach to governing.

Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) has asked whether these powerful managers are now “[imposing] the administration’s agenda on the heads of federal agencies and offices that have been vetted and confirmed by the Senate?”   And Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wisc.) last year held a hearing on the legality of giving broad authority to White House advisors who do not have to be confirmed by Congress.

Certain kinds of “czars” bother lawmakers more than others. Appointments like the Director of the Office of Health Care Reform (the “healthcare czar”) and the Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change (the “climate czar”) are not subject to Senate confirmation, and can influence the kind of policymaking that legislators see as their priority.

However, there are also plenty of “czars” who are subject to Senate confirmation or are subordinate to federal agency officials (Cabinet secretaries and other agency heads) and are thus subject to congressional oversight.  These include the “regulatory czar,” Cass Sunstein, who is responsible for reviewing all new federal regulations and is part of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and Aneesh Chopra, the “technology czar,” who is also associate director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Other appointees labeled “czars,” have been created by statute, such as the “information” czar, the chief information officer for OMB, a position created by the “E-Government Act of 2002” and held by Vivek Kundra.

The White House balks at the notion advanced by some that in this administration, czars have proliferated and taken root like kudzu.  (According to Judicial Watch, the number of czars has grown to 40).  But White House Communications Director Anita Dunn has pointed out that Republican lawmakers applauded past administrations’ appointment of czars to oversee Y2K contingencies (under Bill Clinton), and the fight against AIDS (under George W. Bush).

The White House’s position these days is that, to tackle priority issues that cross agency boundaries, it must appoint so-called “super-staffers” who “report to the president and to Rahm [Emanuel],” explained Jim Messina, deputy White House chief of staff.  Other super-staffers working out of the White House include Nancy-Ann DeParle, an advisor on healthcare reform, and Adolpho Carrion, the White House advisor on urban affairs.

Browner, a former EPA Administrator, coordinates the government’s effort to reduce global warming, overseeing policies coming out of the EPA and Departments of Energy, Transportation, Agriculture and even State.  Perhaps because of the visibility of the climate change question, as well as her high profile career, Browner has become more of a lightning rod for those opposed to White House “czar” appointments.

Constitutional scholars say the president crosses an important line between the executive branch and legislative branch when his staff directs congressionally-approved agency officials to take certain actions.  Simply overseeing and trying to influence agency heads may be all right constitutionally, according to law professor Cary Coglianese, Director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Program on Regulation.  But as Coglianese puts it, “one person’s oversight will be another person’s decision.”

Rena Steinzor, University of Maryland law professor and president of the Center for Progressive Reform, says there’s “nothing illegal” about the appointment of advisors inside the White House.  But Steinzor asks whether it’s “a good idea to centralize control inside the White House.”  Still, it’s hard to manage government’s response to complex issues like climate change without a central coordinator.  Steven Wayne, a professor of government at Georgetown University and author on several books on the presidency, has said czars are necessary because the government “has gotten so big and has its tentacles involved in so many different problems, that the need for coordination is stronger than ever.”

In any case, when politics and turf battles get in the way of government action on urgent issues, the public suffers, and so does government’s reputation.  The public may wonder why more federal agencies can’t do a better job managing major issues or sudden crises without the benefit of a White House-appointed “super staffer.” The Department of Health and Human Services handled the swine flu epidemic and vaccination program, a significant public health crisis, without the benefit of a czar to run things. Instead, HHS head Kathleen Sebelius worked closely with officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who communicated with the public daily.

But this is where the media sometimes take over, shaping the news and public opinion about government effectiveness by resorting to the “czar” moniker.  For example, Dr. Richard Besser, director of the CDC during the swine flu outbreak, was called the “swine flu czar” by at least one media outlet, and the CDC’s chief medical officer, Jesse Goodman, was granted the same title by a pharmaceutical industry newsletter.

And some czars certainly have surprising power.  President Obama appointed Steven Rattner the government’s “car czar” to oversee the bailout of American automakers Chrysler and General Motors when they were close to bankruptcy.  More recently, he named Kenneth Feinberg, known for his work with Wall Street executive compensation and the 9/11 victims’ compensation fund, to manage BP’s $20 billion victim compensation fund.  (It didn’t take long for Feinberg to get the title of “BP claims czar.”)

But the government should be structured to manage its own affairs without special appointments, says Paul Light, an expert in government reform at New York University.  He believes the size of the federal bureaucracy is the reason many czars — the drug czar, for example — are doomed to failure.  In essence, they can’t corral unwieldy federal agencies.  In the case of the drug czar, for example, it’s assumed that one person can coordinate and guide the drug-related efforts of the FBI, the ATF, the DEA, and several agencies of the Department of Homeland Security.

On the ground, in a crisis, many people may not care who’s in charge so long as government gets the job done.  Ask shrimp fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico if they care whether Kenneth Feinberg, rather than someone at the Department of Energy or Interior, is looking over BP’s shoulder to ensure it makes the right payments.  Most likely, their concern is more that the promised relief actually gets delivered.

“It’s a no-brainer that the president needs good aides and good advisors.  The controversy is over what shades of presidential power people want,” Coglianese points out.  He adds that whether people are for or against appointing czars usually depends on whether they agree with – or oppose – the president’s policies.

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For more information:

Government website on “czars”

Presidential Executive Orders creating “czar” positions:

Executive Order 13503 of February 19, 2009 creating the White House Office of Urban Affairs

Executive Order 13507 of April 8, 2009 creating the White House Office of Health Reform

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