Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) -- Too Many White House Czars

Posted on September 17, 2009

Monday on the Senate floor, I expressed my concern about the number of so-called czars in the White House and in the administration. I said then that the number of czars -- I believe the number is now 32 -- is an affront to the Constitution. It is anti-democratic. It is a poor example of what was promised to be a new era of transparency. It is a poor way to manage the government. And it is the most visible symptom of this administration's 8-month record of too many Washington takeovers. Yesterday, the White House blog and a White House press secretary objected to what I said on Monday, pointing out that I had supported manufacturing czars and AIDS czars 6 years ago. Of course I did; I acknowledged that in my remarks on Monday. As I said Monday, there have always been some czars in the White House and in the government since Franklin D. Roosevelt was President. Some of them were appointed by Presidents, some of them were created by statute, and a few of them were confirmed by the Senate. There’s never been anything like we’ve seen with this administration. Also on Monday, I joined in a letter from Senator Collins, Senator Bond, Senator Crapo, Senator Bennett, and Senator Roberts, making clear that not every czar is a problem. In that letter, we identified at least 18 czar positions created by the Obama administration whose reported responsibilities may be undermining the constitutional oversight responsibilities of Congress or express statutory assignments of responsibility to other executive branch officials. In this letter from Senator Collins, in which the rest of us joined, we said: With regard to each of these positions, we ask that you explain: the specific authorities and responsibilities of the position, including any limitations you have placed on the position to ensure that it does not encroach on the legitimate statutory responsibilities of other executive branch officials. Second, the process by which the administration examines the character and qualifications of the individuals appointed by the President to fill the position. And, third, whether the individual occupying the position will agree to any reasonable request to appear before, or provide information to, Congress. The letter goes on to say: We also urge you to refrain from creating similar additional positions or making appointments to any vacant czar positions until you have fully consulted with the appropriate Congressional committees. Finally, we ask that you reconsider your approach of centralizing authority at the White House. Congress has grappled repeatedly with the question of how to organize the Federal Government. We went into some detail about that, and asked respectfully that the President consult carefully with Congress prior to establishing any additional czars. I ask unanimous consent that this letter from six senators be included in the Record following my remarks. The ACTING PRESIDENT pro tempore. Without objection, it is so ordered. (See Exhibit 1.) Mr. ALEXANDER. Senator Collins and the five of us who joined in her letter were not the only Senators to be concerned about this issue. On Wednesday, Senator Feingold, the Democrat from Wisconsin, questioned President Obama's policy of policy czars and sent a letter to the President, just as we did. In that letter, Senator Feingold urged the President to release information about the role and responsibility of these czars, which is what we asked him to do in our letter as well. Senator Hutchison of Texas, in the Washington Post on September 13, wrote an excellent op-ed describing how the system of checks and balances is upset by an excessive number of Washington czars who are unconfirmed and unaccountable to the Congress, and who do not answer questions from those of us who are elected to ask such questions. I ask unanimous consent that Senator Feingold's letter to the President be printed in the Record following my remarks. The ACTING PRESIDENT pro tempore. Without objection, it is so ordered. (See Exhibit 2). Mr. ALEXANDER. On Monday, I pointed out that not only Senator Hutchison and Senator Collins and the other Republican Senators have these concerns. Now Senator Feingold from the other side of the aisle has raised questions about these czars. I mentioned this Monday, but I want to repeat it in case the White House press office missed it: Senator Byrd, our President Pro Tempore, widely considered by all of us in the Senate to be the constitutional conscience of this Senate, was the first to write the president expressing concerns over the increasing appointment of White House czars. In his letter he said: Too often I have seen these lines of authority and responsibility become tangled and blurred, sometimes purposely, to shield information and to obscure the decision-making process. Senator Byrd went on to say that: The rapid and easy accumulation of power by White House staff can threaten the constitutional system of checks and balances. At the worst, White House staff have taken direction and control of problematic areas that are the statutory responsibility of Senate-confirmed officials. Senator Byrd continues: As Presidential assistants and advisers, these White House staffers are not accountable for their actions to Congress, to cabinet officials, and to virtually anyone but the President. They rarely testify before Congressional committees, and often shield the information and decision-making process behind the assertion of executive privilege. In too many instances, White House staff have been allowed to inhibit openness and transparency, and reduce accountability. Mr. ALEXANDER. Finally, I ask unanimous consent to print in the Record following my remarks a list of 18 new czars created by the Obama administration. The ACTING PRESIDENT pro tempore. Without objection, it is so ordered. (See Exhibit 3.) Mr. ALEXANDER. I want to make it clear to the White House Press Office that we are focused on those 18 new czars. We recognize there have been czars before, that for the reasons Senator Byrd, Senator Hutchison, Senator Collins, and others have described. We believe this is too many, and we take seriously our responsibilities under Article II of the Constitution to confirm officials who manage the government, to ask them questions, to approve their appropriations, and to withhold their appropriations when it’s appropriate. We have these positions in the Executive Office of the President; there are 10 of them: central region czar, Dennis Ross; cyber-security czar, domestic violence czar, economic czar, energy and environment czar, and health czar. Those are some of the biggest issues facing Congress, and here are these czars with authority for policy close to the President but unaccountable to us. We have a senior director for information sharing policy, urban affairs czar, WMD policy czar, a green job czar, who resigned recently. Those are the positions in the Executive Office of the President, 10 new ones. Then there are eight more that are in departments or agencies, including: Afghanistan czar, auto recovery czar, car czar, Great Lakes czar, pay czar, Guantanamo closure czar, international climate czar, and the border czar. I described on Monday, as Senator Byrd has said more eloquently, the problems with too many czars. The first problem is the constitutional checks and balances described by Senator Byrd. The second problem is that this is a poor way to manage the government. When I was a young White House aide, I was taught that the job of the White House staff is to push the merely important issues out of the White House so you can reserve to the President the handful of truly Presidential issues for his attention. His job is to set the country's agenda, to see an urgent need and devise a strategy, meet the need and persuade at least half the people he is right. He can do that more effectively if the government is managed by Secretaries and Cabinet officers. Finally, czars are anti-democratic. Czars are usually Russian, not American. Czars are usually imperialists, not Democrats. The dictionary says czars are autocratic rulers or leaders. That is not consistent with the kind of government we want. It is alien to our way of thinking. Czars are becoming the most visible symbol of this administration's determination to have an increasing number of Washington takeovers: banks, insurance companies, student loans, car companies, even farm ponds. Some want to take over health care. Many Americans believe we have a runaway government with too many Washington takeovers, and the last thing we need are 18 new czars unaccountable to elected officials whose job it is to check and balance that government. I am glad in a way that the White House has noticed my comments and those of Senators Collins, Bennett, Hutchison, and others. I hope they will respond to Senator Collins' letter, to Senator Feingold's request, and to other admonitions. We call on the administration to answer questions posed by these Senators: Who are these czars? What is their role? What is their responsibility? How were they vetted? What limitations are on their positions to make sure they don't encroach on legitimate statutory responsibilities of other executive branch officials, and will they agree to a reasonable request to appear before Congress? I yield the floor.