Czar Mania

Posted Sept. 14, 2009, at 6:41 p.m.

The recent resignation of President Barack Obama’s “green jobs czar” Van Jones has brought attention to the administration’s reliance on experts within the West Wing to develop policy. The proliferation of these czars — some 32, according to Politico.com — may give the president easy access to their informed advice on key issues. But it continues a disturbing trend in recent years of consolidating power in the executive branch while also reducing the authority and credibility of departments charged with overseeing some of the same areas.

Critics of the administration have called the czars a “shadow government.” While that might be hyperbole, there is legitimate concern that the existing structure of Cabinet secretaries and the departments they lead is being duplicated, or worse, circumvented.

The president seems to want to surround himself with the best and brightest. If they provide the president with analysis in their areas of expertise, the White House probably would be the better for it.

Gary Andres, deputy assistant to President George H.W. Bush and Senate confirmation coordinator for President George W. Bush, and Patrick J. Griffin, assistant to President Bill Clinton and director of congressional affairs, writing for Politico.com argue that the president is using czars to focus his policy agenda. “All presidents face two major vulnerabilities: falling victim to the exigencies of history or getting spread too thin. Both are real risks; neither outcome is positive.” They conclude that czars ground the presidency and show commitment to policy goals articulated during the campaign. Too often, they write, presidents have been blown off course by unanticipated events (Hurricane Katrina) or lose momentum by devoting too much effort to one policy initiative (the Clinton health care plan).

But the fear is that czars will make recommendations about policy that clash with existing departmental policy positions or that their recommendations will carry more weight with the president than they should.

Mr. Obama’s 32 czars include a border czar, a faith-based czar, a Great Lakes czar, a Guantanamo closure czar, an international climate czar and a domestic violence czar. Some of those nominated to the post have to be confirmed by Congress, and some of the posts were in fact created by Congress.

A better use of some of these experts might be to have them lead task forces of limited duration and limited scope to develop recommendations on a finite problem. The Iraq Study Group and 9-11 Commission come to mind as models.

The term czar, a Russian word for king, was first used in the Reagan administration when the drug czar post was created in 1988. Karl Rove, himself dubbed “domestic policy czar” by President Bush, recently criticized the Obama administration for its “giant expansion of presidential power.” Yet the last president appointed numerous czars including cybersecurity, regulatory, AIDS, bird flu and Katrina czars.

Congress should consider carefully defining the role and domain of future czars.

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