Sen. Collins pushes for more oversight on czars

Posted Oct. 22, 2009, at 9:26 p.m.
Caroline Treadway

WASHINGTON — Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, Thursday questioned the constitutionality of the so-called czars — senior policy advisers overseeing high-priority fields such as health care and the environment — in President Barack Obama’s administration.

Collins is the top Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which held the second recent hearing about the special positions.

Collins and the five other Republicans on the committee sent Obama a letter in mid-September, complaining that the 18 West Wingers they had identified as czars held their posts unconstitutionally and violated Congress’ responsibility to oversee the executive branch because Congress could not call them to testify.

Earlier this month, Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., held a hearing on the subject before the Judiciary Committee’s Constitution Subcommittee, which he chairs. The academics on the panel agreed that though there was a gray area around the czars, Obama was not overstepping any constitutional boundaries.

At Thursday’s hearing, however, a different panel reached a different conclusion, and Collins said she would continue to push back on the issue. The panel included Tom Ridge, who said the position lacked definition. Ridge was President George W. Bush’s homeland security czar before he became secretary of Homeland Security.

While the Judiciary subcommittee’s hearing focused on the academic debate, witnesses at the Thursday hearing looked at the more practical aspects of the issue.

The main point Thursday was whether the czars were duplicating or sidestepping the responsibilities of Cabinet-rank officials, who must be confirmed by the Senate and be accountable to Congress.

“I think the question is whether by creating these offices [such as Cabinet members or agency directors], you can then effectively prevent the president from looking to someone else to be his adviser on an issue, or letting someone else speak for him,” said Lee Casey, a former adviser in the Department of Justice and a witness at the hearing. “Can you stop the president from looking to someone else? I don’t think you can.”

Collins, however, said that the testimony she heard would not sway her from her mission for a more transparent and legislatively defined role for these top advisers.

“We do have to take great care in drafting the legislation,” she said after the hearing. “I’m convinced that the proliferation of czars is a major problem in terms of accountability and congressional oversight and transparency.”

Collins attempted in late September to attach an amendment eliminating money for the czars unless they agreed to appear before Congress, but it was defeated because policy-related amendments cannot be attached to appropriations bills, as hers was. She would not say whether the legislation she hopes to introduce would have the same provisions as the amendment. She said she has been working with Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent, who is chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, to draft language.

“I remain convinced that we do need to have an answer to this,” she said.

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