No question about it. The number of “czars” in government has proliferated under President Barack Obama and has provided a rallying point for his Republican opposition.
Conservatives say Obama has created as many as 40 czars and under that elastic definition President George W. Bush had as many as 36. Still, a less overheated count by The Washington Post lists 30 czars in the Obama administration, 12 of them preexisting, and eight of those requiring Senate confirmation, and 18 positions added by the new president.
“Czar,” it turns out, is a flexible title. In some cases, it’s simply shorthand. The “border czar” is a Department of Homeland Security assistant secretary with a really long title that includes responsibility for border affairs.
The “Mideast peace czar” is a special envoy charged with trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Former Senate Democratic leader George Mitchell surely wishes he had czar-like powers but, alas, he has only the power of persuasion.
The measure of clout in Washington is proximity to the president and budget authority, and by that measure many of the czars are glorified staffers and advisers. One would hope that Obama listens to the advice of former Fed chairman Paul Volcker, the “economic czar,” but it’s unlikely that the president is in regular communication with Cameon Davis, the “Great Lakes czar,” who is an adviser to the EPA administrator.
Six Republican senators have asked the president to knock it off with the czars, saying they circumvent the constitutional requirement of advise and consent, meaning Senate confirmation, and limit Congress’ ability to conduct oversight because staffers generally do not testify before Congress.
In a sense, that’s the whole point. The whole process of clearing and confirming executive branch nominees has become so cumbersome, time consuming and fraught with delays that each succeeding administration relies more and more on czars.
Nominees subject to Senate confirmation must fill out, in most cases by hand, such voluminous background and financial disclosures that there is a small industry in Washington of lawyers specializing in walking candidates through the process.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calls that a “nightmare” because she still doesn’t have a head of USAID and may not get one until next year.
Once named, the nominees are subject to pointless delays. At one point, Republicans had held up voting on a National Parks Service director, the White House science adviser, the assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the ambassador to Brazil to contest largely unrelated issues.
These problems are all susceptible of solution; they only require cooperation between the political parties in Congress and the White House. Maybe that’s what the country needs — a bipartisanship czar.