The Real Reason Congress Investigates White House Czars

Despite what Glenn Beck might think, tomorrow's Senate hearing isn't about purging secret communists

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White House czars, an object of conservative fury thanks to Glenn Beck monologues and discredited Politico stories, will be the subject of a Congressional hearing tomorrow. The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, chaired by Independent Sen. Joe Lieberman, will hear testimony on policy czars. So will it all come down to a partisan fight? Maybe not. Members of the committee and Congressional analysts say there's more to the story than conspiracy theories about closet communists. What's really at stake is the balance of power between the White House and Congress over setting the direction of government policy.

  • Czars Are New Branch of Government  Roll Call's Don Wolfensberger identifies "a third (non-judicial) branch" of government: "A burgeoning policymaking division of the White House positioning itself over the others as the supreme policy arm of government. Nothing better illustrates this development than the proliferation of policy czars in the White House under President Barack Obama." Wolfensberger writes, "The bigger the White House policy apparatus becomes, the more Congress is suspicious of the policies being devised, offended they’ve been left out of the loop and outraged about being denied information essential to good oversight. The reason for this is that nonconfirmable presidential advisers are protected by the doctrine of executive privilege from having to disclose anything to Congress. Policy czars are anathema to Congress."
  • Congress 'Flexing' Oversight Powers  National Journal's Alexis Simendinger describes Congress as concerned that czars will reduce their power as the policymaker. The hearings, Simineger says, are about pushing back. "Senators -- and not just Republicans -- appear intent on flexing their oversight authority to probe further. And even some of Obama's strongest Democratic backers believe that respectful oversight can keep a government that is dominated by one party looking over its shoulder and out of a ditch. The temptation for the party in power is to greet the probing as partisan political posturing, aimed at tormenting the president and scuttling his agenda. But as the Bush administration limped out of Washington in 2008, plenty of Republicans were heard lamenting that the once-GOP-controlled Congress should have done them a favor and conducted more oversight, despite the forceful objections from the White House and Vice President Cheney. In hindsight, they said, just the prospect of regular congressional scrutiny of Bush's policies and departments might have buoyed the GOP brand."
  • Transparency and Oversight At Issue  Sen. Susan Collins, the top Republican on tomorrow's Senate hearing, discussed the hearing with Politics Daily columnist Lynn Sweet. "I have been very clear that this is not a partisan issue, it is in institutional issue. It has to do with respecting the elaborate system of checks and balances established by the Constitution. Not every position identified in the media reports as a czar is problematic, and the administration knows I feel that way," Collins said. "I have been very careful from the beginning to identify 18 positions that I believe are problematic and raise issues of oversight, transparency and accountability. After all, this is the administration that promised the most transparent and accountable administration in history, so I don't understand why the administration is resisting having these individuals testify before Congress."
  • But Did Congress Make Czars Necessary?  Cody M. Brown and Jeffrey D. Ratner argue in the Christian Science Monitor that outdated legislation forces the White House to employ czars. "Before acting, however, Congress should consider a fundamental (and potentially uncomfortable) question: Is Congress to blame for the proliferation of White House czars?" they write. "To answer this, we should look back at 1932 when Congress authorized the president to consolidate executive branch functions and agencies in order to 'reduce expenditures and increase efficiency' and to 'eliminate … duplication of effort.'" The legislation helped streamline FDR's growing administration, but was later ruled unconstitutional for its inclusion of a single-house veto. The authors say new legislation is needed. "Passing a new reorganization act, in a constitutional form, may not only reduce the presence of czars, but could also improve the administrative management of the executive branch while giving Congress a voice in the process."
  • Lieberman Rebels Against His Savior  Liberal blogger John Aravosis notes that Obama protected Lieberman's committee chairmanship, which Democrats wanted to strip in retaliation for Lieberman's support of McCain during the 2008 presidential election. "If Lieberman's hearings do anything short of completely exonerating Obama, he should be kicked out of the caucus once and for all. Obama owns Lieberman, he saved Lieberman's committee chairmanship. It's time Lieberman got in line, or got out."
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