Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) -- Push Out the Czars

Posted on September 14, 2009

Mr. President, according to news accounts, there are approximately 32 or 34 so-called czars in the Obama White House and government. Respected voices in the Senate -- Senator Byrd, a senior Democrat and Senator Hutchison, a senior Republican -- have pointed out that these czars are an affront to the Constitution. They are anti-democratic. They are a poor example of a new era of transparency, which is what was promised to this country. I would add that they are a poor way to manage the government, and they seem to me to be the principal symptom of this administration's 8-month record of too many Washington takeovers. We have an AIDS czar, an auto recovery czar, a border czar, and a California water czar. We have a car czar, a central region czar, and a domestic violence czar. There is an economic czar, an energy and environment czar, a faith-based czar and a Great Lakes czar. The list goes on, up to 32 or 34. One of these, for example, is the pay czar, Mr. Kenneth Feinberg, the Treasury Department’s Special Master for Compensation. He will approve pay packages at seven firms receiving TARP funds, thus deciding how much pay is too much. This will affect the top earners at some of the major corporations in America. According to Mr. Feinberg, in answer to some questions, he said: The statute provides guideposts but the statute ultimately says I have discretion to decide what it is that these people should make and that my determination will be final. Anything is possible under the law. That is the pay czar. Then we have a manufacturing czar. The manufacturing czar's name is Mr. Ron Bloom. He is also the car czar. We have had manufacturing czars before in other administrations, but as Roll Call pointed out on September 8, Mr. Bloom's background and new position differs from the two czars who served under former President George W. Bush: Bloom is a former union official, remaining close to leaders in organized labor. Bush's manufacturing czars were placed in the Commerce Department. Bloom, on the other hand, was entrusted with a high profile Presidential task force on autos, and will operate within an office that has broad authority over domestic policy. He will head the auto task force which is in the Treasury Department. According to the policy director for the AFL-CIO, Mr. Bloom is expected to have a major role in the development of climate change legislation. So-called buy American provisions that favor home-grown products, and tax credits for domestic industry need to be included, said the policy director for the AFL/CIO, in the climate change provision. If it's not done right, the President could lose votes, said the AFL/CIO Policy Director. In other words, Mr. Bloom may end up being the protectionist czar as well. Then there is the health czar, a very distinguished Tennessean, Nancy-Ann DeParle, a very able woman I know well. But who is in charge of health care policy? Is it the Secretary of Health and Human Services, confirmed by the Senate, accountable to the Congress, accountable, therefore, to the people of the country? Or is it someone in the White House who, an administration official says will "wake up every morning focused on health care reform, and she is going to be focused on that the entire day through?" There have been czars in the White House, at least since President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Of the 32 or 34 we have today -- and I am using those two numbers because there are different reports and 2 or 3 czar positions are vacant -- only 8 are confirmed by the Senate. We have had czars before, but there has never been anything quite like this. Let me take my concerns one by one. Article I of the Constitution of the United States gives to the Congress the appropriations power and sets up, in articles II and III, the executive and judicial branches, a system of checks and balances to make sure no one branch of the Federal Government runs away with the government. Senator Robert Byrd, the President pro tempore of the Senate, wrote a letter to President Obama on February 23. Senator Byrd, who is often called the Constitutional conscience of the Senate, expressed his concern over the increasing appointments of White House czars and the relationship between these new positions and their executive branch counterparts, noting: 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. That is Senator Byrd speaking. He goes on to say: 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 programmatic areas that are the statutory responsibility of Senate-confirmed officials. Continuing: As presidential assistants and advisers, these White House staffers are not accountable for their actions to the 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. More recently, one of the senior Republicans, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, who is the senior Republican on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, said in an op-ed in the Washington Post: I oversee legislation and agencies that cover policy areas as vast and varied as trade, technology, transit, consumer protection and commercial regulation. As many as 10 of the 32 czars functionally fall under my committee's jurisdiction. Yet neither I nor the committee chairmen have clear authority to compel these czars to appear before our panel and report what they are doing. The Obama administration presented only two of these officials for our consideration before they assumed their duties. We have had no opportunity to probe the others' credentials. That is Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas. I ask unanimous consent to have printed in the Record following my remarks the comments of Senator Robert Byrd and the op-ed of Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. As the Senator said, many of these czars have no vetting by the Senators, no appropriation requests to be considered by us, no testimony given, and answer no hard questions. Who is making the policy, then, on health care, on climate change, on energy? I have been reading President James K. Polk's diaries. I may be the only one in the United States reading them these days. They are actually very interesting. He wrote down every night what he did that day, back in the 1840s. Among the things he did, he had a Cabinet meeting every Tuesday and Saturday and every major issue that came before him, whether it was the war with Mexico, annexation of Texas, the argument with Great Britain about what to do in Oregon -- he submitted all those questions to his Cabinet, and then the Cabinet, of course, had to go before the Congress and testify. He didn't always agree with the Cabinet. Secretary of State Buchanan disagreed with President Polk quite a bit, but Secretary Buchanan then had to go before the Congress and come back and tell the President what he heard. That was a long time ago, but what the Framers had in mind was checks and balances where the President leads the country, the Cabinet manages the government, and the Cabinet, as the managers of the government, are accountable to the people through their elected Representatives. The 32 or 34 czars are not representative of the way the American system of government is supposed to work. This is not an era of transparency. It creates so much centralization of power that it is the antithesis of freedom, which is the principal characteristic, the principal aspect of the American character. The second aspect of this large number of czars that is troublesome is the issue of managing the government. Forty years ago, I worked in the White House for President Nixon under a wise man named Bryce Harlow. Mr. Harlow had worked for President Eisenhower. He was a wise counselor to President Johnson. He knew a lot about how the American Government is supposed to work. He said to me, then a very young staff member -- he said: Lamar, our job here in the White House is to push the merely important issues out of the White House so that we can reserve to the President only that handful of truly Presidential issues. George Reedy, who was Lyndon Johnson's Press Secretary, wrote: The job of the President is three things -- to see an urgent need, to develop a strategy to meet the need, and persuade half the people he's right. Mr. Reedy didn't say anything about managing the Government of the United States out of the White House. He talked about leading the country. Our current President is very skilled at persuading half the people he is right. He has demonstrated that in an election. He continues to demonstrate that with his speeches. That is not the issue. The issue is whether he ought to bring into the White House, or closer to him into the government, a large group of men and women who are accountable to him but not accountable to anybody else. It is not good for the President of the United States, I would submit, to have close to him people he listens to who do not have to listen to anybody else, or at least who do not have to listen to the elected Representatives of government. Everyone knows the first thing that happens when a new President is elected is people pick offices, and which office do they pick? They want the office closest to the President because it is an unwritten rule in Washington DC, that influence in Washington is measured in direct proportion to the number of inches one is physically from the President of the United States. So the First Lady usually ends up with the most influence. After that, go right down the hall in the West Wing over to the Executive Office Building. After a while you get out around the Cabinet offices. I used to be in one of the Cabinet offices in the first President Bush's administration. It is true, the persons with the most influence with the President are almost always the men and women who are closest to him. The other aspect of management that this seems to contravene in the White House is the "one thing at a time" idea. One thing at a time is best exemplified, I suggest, by President Eisenhower when he said "I shall go to Korea." He said that more than a half century ago when the big issue before the country -- there were many, but the biggest issue was the Korean War. President Eisenhower said, in October of the election year, "I shall go to Korea," and in December he went. And he said to the American people, "I will focus my attention on the war in Korea. It will have my full attention until the matter is concluded." Because he was President and because he had capacity for leadership, people believed he would probably get that one thing done. In fact he did because, in our system of government, people know if the President selects a single issue -- say it is health care, say it is climate change, say it is resolving the debt, or fixing Social Security – if he picks one thing and throws himself into that for as long as he is there, the odds are he is going to wear everybody else out. He might have to compromise a little bit along the way. I used to think this as Governor -- and the Presiding Officer was once Governor in Virginia. Often our best proposals would get changed in the legislature. I learned a long time ago you could either condemn that or say: Well, they improved my proposal. Give the other side some credit, and go on to the next issue. But a Governor and certainly a President who picks one thing can get a lot done. We have a lot of very talented people in and around the President. The President himself is highly intelligent and well liked by the American people, as well as he is by those of us in the Senate. But sometimes I am afraid the Obama White House resembles the Harvard Law Review meeting where everybody has a bright idea, everybody is very smart, but everyone forgets that someone has to be the operator. Someone has to make it run. Someone has to pick one thing and lean into it for as long as it goes. My point is, having a large number of bright advisers or czars for every issue under the Sun, clustered around the President, coming up with bright ideas, and who are unaccountable to the Congress for most of what they have to say, is not the best way for a President to pick a single, major issue -- let's say health care -- and lead the country. Finally, the number of czars we now have today, who have accumulated over the last several administrations and today have reached a record level is anti-democratic. Czars are usually Russians; they are not Americans. Czars are usually imperialists, not Democrats. The dictionary says a czar is an autocratic ruler or leader or an emperor or king. A czar is not associated with a democracy, not associated with an era of transparency. Czars are alien to our way of thinking and our way of government. I am afraid czars are becoming a symbol of this administration and the number of Washington takeovers. Let me not just use my own words, a New York Times article today said: But one year after the collapse of Lehman Brothers set off a series of federal interventions, the government is the nation's biggest lender, insurer, automaker and guarantor against risk for investors large and small. Between financial rescue missions and the economic stimulus program, Government spending accounts for a bigger share of the nation's economy -- 26 percent -- than at any time since World War II. The Government is financing 9 out of 10 new mortgages in the United States. If you buy a car from General Motors, you are buying from a company that is 60 percent owned by the Government. If you take out a car loan or run up your credit card, the chances are good that the Government is financing both your debt and that of your bank. And if you buy life insurance from the American International Group, you will be buying from a company that is almost 80 percent Federally owned. I ask unanimous consent to have printed in the Record this article from September 14 following my remarks. Czars are becoming a symbol of a runaway government in Washington with too many Washington takeovers. Dr. Samuel Johnson, the British moralist a few centuries ago, was once introduced to a talking dog in a London pub. The proud owner of the dog asked Dr. Johnson what did he think of how well his dog talked. Dr. Johnson is reported to have said, he was not so impressed with how well the dog talked, but that the dog talked at all. That is about the way I feel about the nearly three dozen White House czars and government czars. I am not so worried about who they are, I am worried that the czars are there at all. I believe that the American people in addition to respected Senators, such as Senator Byrd on the other side of the aisle, and Senator Hutchison on this side of the aisle, sense this is a problem. My respectful suggestion to the President is along the same lines as Senator Byrd and Senator Hutchison have made. I believe it is time to push these czars out of the White House, and leave the management of government to the managers of government in the Cabinet and the positions in the departments of government who are accountable to the Congress. The positions who are accountable for their confirmation, accountable to answer the questions of Members of Congress, accountable for appropriations that have to be approved by Congress before they can spend the people's money. That is the American way. I ask unanimous consent to have printed in the Record the list of czars published in the newspaper Politico on September 4.