Lamar Alexander, others say Obama advisers wield too much authority

Posted on September 9, 2009

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander and other Republicans charged Tuesday that the Obama White House is placing too much power in the hands of a small group of presidential advisers who don't require congressional approval and thus cannot be held accountable for their actions. "It's too much authority in one place, and it undermines the very careful system of checks and balances that the founders set up in the Constitution," said Alexander, an East Tennessee Republican. Republicans have complained for months about the number of President Obama's so-called "czars," the nickname given to a group of special advisers who, for the most part, aren't subject to congressional confirmation. But the criticism has escalated since the resignation last weekend of Van Jones, the president's "green jobs" czar. Jones came under fire for derogatory comments he had made about Republicans and for signing a letter that called for an investigation into whether former President George W. Bush and other government officials had allowed the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Alexander, the Senate's No. 3 Republican, said during a national television appearance on Sunday that the larger problem is the number of czars working for the White House. He reiterated those concerns in an interview with the News Sentinel on Tuesday. "My concern is that it's an affront to the Constitution, and at a time when Americans are worried about the lack of checks and balances on a runaway federal government, this just adds fuel to the fire," Alexander said. By one count, the Obama administration has at least 29 czars. Roane County native Nancy-Ann DeParle, for example, is the administration's czar for health reform. There are also czars on Afghanistan, AIDS, cars, domestic violence, faith-based issues, pay, terrorism and international climate change, to name just a few. Only six of those 29 advisers required congressional confirmation. Other presidents also have tapped czars to work on various issues, but none have employed as many as the Obama administration, Alexander said. "This is, in my experience, completely unprecedented and a dangerous trend," Alexander said. "And it simply feeds the feeling that many Americans have that there are too many Washington takeovers, too much power in one place, and a lack of checks and balances on runaway government." The president is entitled to appoint a group of advisers without congressional approval and who cannot be questioned by the Congress, Alexander said. But the managers of government are supposed to be department heads who are confirmed by the Senate and regularly held accountable to the American people through congressional hearings and appropriations, he said. "Suddenly, we have everything from taking over General Motors to taking over the banks to setting student loans to setting pay to building windmills - all decided by a handful of people in the White House who can't be questioned," Alexander said. "The Obama administration was supposed to bring to this country 'an era of openness.' It's not an era of openness when you have 29 czars in there who can't be confirmed and can't be questioned by elected representatives." Other Republicans have voiced similar objections. "It certainly raises concern that we have so many influential members of the administration in positions of authority and deciding important policy matters without going through the Senate approval process," said U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Chattanooga. U.S. Rep. John J. Duncan Jr., R-Knoxville, said the White House's reliance on czars "takes away the powers of the Cabinet to some extent and, as many people have said, it's outside the Constitution." The plethora of presidential advisers also raises other issues, Duncan said, such as where exactly they fit in the chain of command and what would happen if they have a disagreement with a particular department head. "There's a lot of questions that need to be asked," Duncan said. "This is just one of the problems (that happen) when you have one-party rule."