May the Lord bless and keep the czars ... far away from us!

In democracy, accountability always has a tension with efficiency.  Usually the two act in balance to keep the worst of either extreme from happening, but in times of turmoil, the efficiency impulse usually overwhelms accountability.  This leads to dumb proposals to create “czars” on particular policy, people who have plenary power to enforce policy with almost no oversight.  Usually, the latter gets promoted as a feature rather than explained as a bug.

And now, we seem to have an entire executive branch comprised of czars of one sort or another.  The Los Angeles Times reports that this impulse towards autocracy worries more than just a few observers:

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.

Usually presidents have restrained themselves to specific areas of urgent policy stress, such as Nixon’s appointment of Simon.  George Bush last appointed a “czar” to quarterback the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2007, Gen. Douglas Lute.  Did you hear anything from Lute since his appointment in May 2007?  No, because the position wound up completely ineffective, warping the chain of command and essentially outsourcing Bush’s own responsibilities as Commander-in-Chief.  I’m not even sure the appointment was ever completed, so far down the memory hole it went.  In any event, it had no impact on the public mission of the war, which it intended to do, allowing Bush to distance himself from his own surge policies in order to get less partisan bickering over it.  The real “czar” of the war turned out to be David Petraeus, who went through the normal confirmation process and occupied a traditional role in the chain of command, with all of the attendant accountability.

I mention that to contrast the sparing (and still futile) use of “czars” under previous administrations to the profligacy of the Obama administration.  If Congress acted like a true check on the executive instead of a rubber stamp for Obama — a criticism often leveled by Democrats from 2001-6, and not without cause — they would put a halt to the expansion of powers Obama proposes.  Czars by their nature work directly for the President and are not accountable to Congress, yet they direct agencies that exist as a trust-based hybrid of legislative and executive powers.  That is why Congress has to confirm appointees at the top levels of these agencies, and why Congress demands that they report constantly to them on their status and actions.

Czars change the equation of power between the executive and the legislature, which is the people’s branch of government.  They assume powers not intended for the executive and can get around Congressional mandates at whim.  That might make sense during temporary periods of emergency, but left in place corrupts accountability of government to the people.  It creates a powerful and unchecked executive branch, only answerable to a greatly-increased presidency.

It’s interesting to note that the Democrats have decided to allow this, after years of screeching incoherently about Bush’s “unitary executive” without understanding at all what the term meant. The only “czar” powers Bush granted were to Lute, on an area completely within Bush’s purview anyway (conduct of the war), and the Director of National Intelligence, which Congress demanded he create and who still has to be confirmed by the Senate and accountable in normal fashion anyway. The formation of a legion of czars represents a challenge to the proper balance of power far outstripping anything seen during the Bush years, or for that matter any time in American history.

Here’s my AOL report card for this issue: