The Wall Street Journal - Neil King Jr.
The uproar over former White House adviser Van Jones has heightened attention on the ranks of nonconfirmed policy "czars" within the Obama administration.
The use of special White House advisers and the czar moniker itself go back decades, but government watchers say President Barack Obama has appointed an unusual number of senior coordinators, especially for a president so early in his administration. They have responsibilities ranging from health care and climate change to Afghanistan and the auto sector.
The practice of appointing czars to take on specific jobs goes back at least to Franklin Roosevelt, who had a cadre of advisers to oversee the New Deal.
Some Republicans, fanned by conservative commentators' warnings that these advisers constitute a shadow government, have seized on the czar issue to criticize Mr. Obama for trying to push policy initiatives outside normal bureaucratic channels. Republicans, including Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander and California Rep. Darrell Issa, say that the use of these special advisers has run amok, and that their powers should be curbed. The issue flared in recent weeks at dozens of congressional town-hall meetings.
One concern about czars centers on the fact that many of these appointments aren't subject to confirmation by Congress. To have them running the government, rather than simply assisting the president, "is an affront to the Constitution," Mr. Alexander said. West Virginia Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd warned earlier this year that the growth of czars could sap congressional authority.
The White House dismisses the criticism as overblown. "The reality is that every president dating back to Nixon had similar positions in their administrations," said Jen Psaki, a White House spokeswoman.
Just what constitutes a czar is murky, and it isn't clear exactly how many Mr. Obama has compared with previous administrations.Critics have brandished lists singling out 30 or so Obama administration appointees, but nearly a third of those hold posts that existed during the Bush administration. Others hold positions subject to confirmation by the Senate. Still others dubbed czars are longtime government officials asked to take on specific projects.
But it is true that the Obama administration has broadened the ranks of special advisers, in some cases giving large portfolios to officials who might have faced difficulties in a Senate confirmation process. Some Obama supporters acknowledge that a Senate vetting process would likely have uncovered earlier Mr. Jones's controversial past. Mr. Jones, who advised the White House on "green jobs," resigned Saturday amid a brewing backlash over inflammatory statements he made in previous speeches. Mr. Jones described the attacks against him as a "vicious smear campaign."
The number of Obama czars stems in part from the administration's effort to deal with the worst recession in decades -- six appointees that conservative critics list as czars hold posts directly tied to the economic downturn, including Earl Devaney, responsible for overseeing stimulus spending, and Ron Bloom, in charge of the auto bailout.
Mr. Obama's choice of Carol Browner, a former Environmental Protection Agency chief, as his main White House energy adviser has in particular aroused suspicions from Republicans, who question whether her access to the president will mean she ends up usurping power from other agencies. Ms. Browner helped broker a fuel-standards deal between the administration and auto makers earlier this year, and has been a conspicuous presence in climate negotiations with Congress. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, meanwhile, has been largely tied up administering billions of dollars in stimulus projects. Ms. Browner, through a spokesman, declined to comment.
Other appointees are coming under fire from conservative commentators for positions they have taken in the past. Mark Lloyd, who held the midlevel position of chief diversity officer at the Federal Communications Commission, has been critical of corporate-owned media. Cass Sunstein, a former Harvard Law professor picked to oversee government regulations within the Office of Management and Budget, won Senate confirmation Thursday after a months-long tussle. Mr. Sunstein has made the case for granting legal rights to domestic animals and clamping down on hunting.Messrs. Lloyd and Sunstein, through their offices, declined to comment.
Political scholars say it's too early to tell whether the expansion in the ranks of government advisers is a temporary anomaly as the administration wrestles with a large array of challenges -- or represents a disturbing growth in executive-branch power.
"We still need time to see which way this breaks," said Gary Bass, director of the nonpartisan OMB Watch. "If these advisers turn out to be highly controlling and unaccountable, that would be very troubling. But in a government that is so large, they could also play a key coordinating role, and that would be good."