For example, Podesta said, a coherent White House energy policy "needs input not just from the Energy Department," but also from the EPA and the Interior, Commerce and Agriculture departments. Thus, an energy czar made sense.
Podesta saw little potential for the czars to undermine the authority of Cabinet agencies. "As long as the White House staff is respectful of the power and authority of the people in the Cabinet, as I know they will be, I think it will be a very workable model," he said in January.
Now that the White House is launching the system, aides are refining the description a bit. Messina emphasized that the czar positions rank below Cabinet positions.
He said the confirmation-free appointments do not violate the Constitution because the czars are aides to the president and his team. "They're super-staffers and report to the president and to Rahm," he said, referring to Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. "I meet with them. I don't meet with Cabinet secretaries; they're above me." Czars mainly will do their coordination work behind the scenes, and secretaries will serve more as what Messina calls the "public faces" of the administration.
That description does not allay Byrd's concerns, said his spokesman, Jesse Jacobs.
"If the czars are working behind the scenes and the secretaries will be the mouthpieces of the administration, it calls into question who is actually making the policy decision," he said. "Whoever is making the policy decisions needs to be accountable and available to Congress and the American public."
It's still very early in the Obama presidency, but others also question the czar setup.
Browner, whose title is special advisor to Obama on climate change and energy, told reporters two weeks ago that the administration soon would propose new rules to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from a variety of industries. Obama's EPA administrator had hinted at such a possibility, but had not made it clear how things would unfold.
Browner's statement set off a nervous response among a few Washington interest groups that objected to the executive branch unilaterally taking the lead on regulating a substance as ubiquitous as carbon.
"The issues are important enough that you have to have the give and the take of the congressional process -- and do this in the open," said former Michigan Gov. John Engler, who heads the National Assn. of Manufacturers.
At least one senator wanted to ask Browner about exactly that in a confirmation hearing. As a czar and not a Cabinet secretary, however, she did not have to answer questions on Capitol Hill.
"The overall concern is, Carol Browner has been appointed to coordinate all this energy policy," said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.). "What's her role going to be? She's not going to be going through a confirmation process. While [agency directors] had to come to Congress and answer questions, she didn't."
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The idea of dubbing a powerful White House aide a "czar" has been around for decades, but no president has named as many as Barack Obama.
Energy and environment czar: Carol Browner, Environmental Protection Agency administrator in the Clinton administration
Health czar: Nancy-Ann DeParle, former official in the Clinton administration, overseeing healthcare issues
Urban affairs czar: Adolfo Carrion Jr., former Bronx borough president
Economic czar: Paul A. Volcker, former Federal Reserve chairman
Regulatory czar: Cass R. Sunstein, Harvard Law School professor
Government performance czar: Unfilled since Nancy Killefer resigned after it was revealed she had failed to pay tax obligations for household help
Source: Times reporting