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President Obama's czar system concerns some

He has 'super aides' for healthcare, the economy, energy and urban issues, with more to come -- prompting some lawmakers and groups to worry that he may be concentrating power and bypassing Congress.

March 05, 2009|Tom Hamburger and Christi Parsons

WASHINGTON — As President Obama names more policy czars to his White House team -- high-level staff members who will help oversee the administration's top initiatives -- some lawmakers and Washington interest groups are raising concerns that he may be subverting the authority of Congress and concentrating too much power in the presidency.

The idea of these "super aides," who will work across agency lines to push the president's agenda, is not a new one. President Nixon may have named the first "czar" with his appointment of William E. Simon to handle the 1970s energy crisis. Other presidents have followed suit.

But none has embraced the concept, presidential scholars say, to the extent that Obama has.

He has appointed special advisors who will work from inside the White House on healthcare, the economy, energy and urban issues, with more to come.

"The challenges coming at us are bigger than anything we've seen since the Depression," said Jim Messina, deputy White House chief of staff. "It's crucial to have people in these positions who can help us meet them head-on."

But some lawmakers and outside experts fear that Obama is setting up a system that is not subject to congressional oversight and creates the potential for conflict among his many advisors.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) became concerned enough to send a cautionary letter to Obama last week. At times, he said, past White House staffers have assumed duties that should be the responsibility of officials cleared through the Senate confirmation process. He cited President Bush's naming of homeland security czar Tom Ridge as an example.

"They rarely testify before congressional committees and often shield the information and decision-making process behind the assertion of executive privilege," Byrd wrote of past czars and White House staffers in similar positions. At times, he said, one outcome has been to "inhibit openness and transparency, and reduce accountability."

"The rapid and easy accumulation of power by White House staff can threaten the constitutional system of checks and balances," Byrd said.

It's far too early to tell whether Obama's quest for efficiency will lead to overstepping the bounds of presidential authority, but the latest appointment announcement could offer a few clues.

This week, he named two women to lead his effort to overhaul the nation's healthcare system. One of them, Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas, was tapped to be Health and Human Services secretary. At her confirmation hearings, senators will be able to probe her views on health policy and demand detailed documentation of her credentials.

But the other, Nancy-Ann DeParle, who was named health czar, can begin work right away, without outside review of her abilities or opinions. And whereas lawmakers can ask Sebelius for testimony in the future and control her budget, DeParle may remain largely outside the gaze of Congress.

Paul Light of New York University, an expert on the presidency, said Byrd has a valid constitutional concern about Obama's use of czars. Light too is worried about Obama's expansion of the czar system, but his apprehension is focused on more-practical concerns.

He points out that previous presidential czars became frustrated because they had no permanent staff, and their power was diffuse and unclear. Besides, he said, "there are so many czars in this White House, they'll be constantly bumping in to each other."

In addition to naming DeParle to coordinate healthcare policy, Obama has tapped Carol Browner to be White House energy czar, a post that could overlap with the functions of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Energy Department and other agencies. Adolfo Carrion Jr., a former Bronx borough president, is urban affairs czar, a job that may dovetail with the functions of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. And Paul A. Volcker, Obama's big-picture economic czar, must coordinate with the Treasury Department and other agencies.

The confusion about competing roles played by czars and their Cabinet counterparts was on display Monday as White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs tried to explain how authority would be divided between DeParle and Sebelius as they steer health reform through Congress.

At first, he declared that DeParle "will be in charge." Then he acknowledged a role for Sebelius and others.

"I think obviously this is something that spans across many platforms, not unlike, say, something like energy independence, that a lot of people that work in this building and in different agencies will be involved in," he said, pledging to get back to reporters with details about how the health policy team will work.

Before Inauguration Day, transition director John Podesta said in an interview that Obama deliberately was building a strong, centralized White House organization, one that grew naturally out of his disciplined presidential campaign.

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