Barack Obama campaigned on changing the culture of Washington to bring more openness, transparency, and accountability to the Beltway. Yesterday, Congress discovered that change actually meant going in the other direction. The White House informed Congress that it would not make its policy czars available for testimony before Congress, setting up a potential showdown between the two branches of government:
The White House has told Congress it will reject calls for many of President Obama’s policy czars to testify before Congress – a decision senators said goes against the president’s promises of transparency and openness and treads on Congress’ constitutional mandate to investigate the administration’s actions.
Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican, said White House counsel Greg Craig told her in a meeting Wednesday that they will not make available any of the czars who work in the White House and don’t have to go through Senate confirmation. She said he was “murky” on whether other czars outside of the White House would be allowed to come before Congress.
Miss Collins said that doesn’t make sense when some of those czars are actually making policy or negotiating on behalf of Mr. Obama. …
The debate goes to the heart of weighty constitutional issues about separation of powers. The president argues that he should be allowed to have advisers who are free to give him confidential advice without having to fear being called to testify about it. Democrats and Republicans in Congress, though, argue that those in office who actually craft policy should be able to be summoned to testify because they do more than just give the president advice.
Let’s revisit the context of the issue with this handy chart from the Washington Post:
Bush created five new czar positions in five years. Obama created 17 new czar positions in 8 months, only one of which needed Senate confirmation and has Congressional oversight. These are essentially end runs around Congressional oversight. The Obama administration denied this earlier this year, but their response to both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill leaves little doubt on the matter. Obama wants to create and implement policy in secret, and doesn’t want his czars having to testify before Congress on what they do.
Is this “transparency”? No, but it is a transparent power grab, and Congress has only belatedly noticed it. In fact, as the Washington Times reports this morning, White House counsel Greg Craig denied this — but spent half of his time rebutting Glenn Beck rather than explaining why Congress should not have oversight over administration officials who set and implement policy.
That’s also pretty transparent. Obama wants to play the Fox card to get Congress to retreat on oversight. If Fox calls for Congress to perform its constitutional duties, apparently that makes it extreeeeeeeeeme. That’s an interesting take on transparency, and an interesting position on the Constitution from the nation’s most, er, celebrated constitutional scholar.