Recently, many Republican and conservative pundits have taken to blasting President Barack Obama for the many so-called “czars” currently running around Washington on behalf of the administration. Some, like Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, have declared these White House operatives “unconstitutional.” Others, including Georgia Congressman Jack Kingston, have introduced legislation denying the president the ability to pay any “czars” unless they are first confirmed by the Senate.
The number of “Obamaczars” is as imprecise as the term itself, but most observers agree the number is somewhere between 30 and 40 (not that different from the number employed by Mr. Bush II). In a federal government which employs some 2,000,000 people, 30 to 40 employees known as ”czars” is not very many. But still, they make a tempting target.
The controversy is actually not a new one. All modern presidents, certainly since FDR (whose key adviser, Harry Hopkins, was known around the nation’s capital as the “Deputy President”), have hired men and women who do not have to be confirmed by the Senate, to provide advice and to assist them in carrying out the myriad tasks any president faces. All of these former presidents, right up to Obama’s immediate successor, George W. Bush, were criticized by their political opponents for allowing “power” to be wielded by people not confirmed by the Senate. However, the charges against a Harry Hopkins or an H.R. Haldeman, who was one of Richard Nixon’s much-maligned assistants, are as pointless as are the criticisms of those serving Obama in 2009.
The fact is, these men and women are not subject to Senate confirmation and their “power,” such as it is, comes simply from however much access they have to the president and how much he decides to listen to them, as with any number of other employees within the executive branch of the government. In the same respect, some cabinet officers — all of who are subject to confirmation — may not themselves possess much presidential juice, simply because the top guy doesn’t put much stock in their advice.
Congressional whining about such matters is nothing more than feckless partisanship. Republicans by and large don’t complain about Republican “czars” just as Democrats rarely complain about those serving a president with a “D” after his name. When the Republicans controlled the Congress, as they did during the first six years of the last Bush Administration, and had they been sincerely concerned about the “constitutionality” of “czars,” they could have done something about it. They could have introduced and passed legislation such as Republican Rep. Kingston has now proposed (in a Democrat-controlled Congress), limiting the number or pay of presidential advisers, or made them all subject to Senate confirmation. They could have cut off or limited funding for the Bush “czars.” But they didn’t; and Democrats — some of whom complained about Bush’s bevy of “czars” — clearly aren’t going to take such non-partisan steps now that a member of their party occupies the residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
And by the way, if any “czar,” now or in the future, does something the Congress finds really reprehensible, the powers that be on the Hill can in fact subpoena that person to appear and answer questions under oath; such a process does not require that a person be subject to Senate confirmation. It does require that Congress have the interest and the backbone to take such a step as opposed to just bloviating about it, which is, after all, much easier.