The real truth about the czars

The White House has begun pushing back against the criticism over the explosion of czars in the Obama administration, with a blog entry yesterday that attempts to minimize the end run around Congress engineered by Barack Obama.  The argument from the Obama administration and its defenders seems to be that (a) no one complained about czars during the Bush administration, (b) some of the ones highlighted have required Senate approval, and (c) the White House doesn’t call them “czars”:

Last week, when the President addressed the Joint Session of Congress in a speech on health reform, he referred to some of the untruths – okay, lies – that have been spread about the plan and sent a clear message to those who seek to undermine his agenda and his presidency with these tactics: “We will call you out.” So consider this one of those calls.

Over the past several weeks, we’ve seen with increasing frequency and volume issues raised around the use of “czars” by this Administration. Although some Members have asked serious questions around the makeup of the White House staff, the bulk of the noise you hear began first with partisan commentators, suggesting that this is somehow a new and sinister development that threatens our democracy. This is, of course, ridiculous. Just to be clear, the job title “czar” doesn’t exist in the Obama Administration. Many of the officials cited by conservative commentators have been confirmed by the Senate. Many hold policy jobs that have existed in previous Administrations. And some hold jobs that involved coordinating the work of agencies on President Obama’s key policy priorities: health insurance reform, energy and green jobs, and building a new foundation for long-lasting economic growth

But of course, it’s really the hypocrisy here that is noteworthy. Just earlier today, Darrell Issa, a Republican from California and one of the leaders in calling for an investigation into the Obama Administration’s use of “czars”, had to admit to Fox News that he had never raised any objections to the Bush Administration’s use of “czars”. Many of these members who now decry the practice have called on Presidents in the past to appoint “czars” to coordinate activities within the government to address immediate challenges. What is clear is that all of this energy going into these attacks could be used to have a constructive conversation about bringing this country together to address our challenges moving forward – and it doesn’t take a “czar” to bring that about! Just some folks willing to act in good faith.

It’s true that some of the 32, 34, 35, or more positions critics have pointed out are not actually czars at all, and do require both Senate approval and Congressional oversight.  One example of this is Cass Sunstein, the so-called Regulatory Czar, who just got confirmed by the Senate.  Using those positions as examples of an Obama power grab undermine the argument and allow the White House to offer sophistry in response.

The Washington Post offers a handy guide that demonstrates the dishonesty in the White House response:

What we can see here is that Bush created five non-confirmed positions in his administration — in eight years.  Of those, three fall solidly within the executive branch’s authority for national security and diplomacy: WMD, terrorism, and Sudan.  Nevertheless, those positions should have had Senate confirmation if they enforced regulation, which would have been questionable for any of these five.

In contrast, the Obama administration has created 17 “czar” positions in seven months, all but one of which avoid Senate confirmation and Congressional oversight.  At least two of these positions will or have already enforced regulation: the Pay Czar and the Auto Recovery Czar, the latter of which unduly influenced the bankruptcies of Chrysler and GM. The Car Czar will likely enforce administration policy on manufacturing and car model selection.  Van Jones, who had been the Green Jobs Czar, isn’t listed in this chart, but he had authority to spend tens of billions of dollars on green initiatives, outside the overview of Congress.

It took Obama less than a year to triple the number of executive-branch commissars that avoid confirmation than Bush created in two terms.  That’s a ridiculous level of bureaucratic expansion and Congressional avoidance, and none of the White House’s pushback even remotely addresses it.

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