There are no Czars in the Obama White House

8/17/2012 10:25:00 AM
Actually, I don't think any of the Czars ever even stepped foot anywhere in the US.

This is just a response to something I hear periodically from the Glenn Beck crowd. The media likes to use the term "czar" to refer to certain types of administration officials, but it ought to go without saying that that is not their actual title.

What is a czar? Lets start with a little talk about management. Whenever a new issue or project comes up for your office to handle, the first thing that any good manager should do is appoint a single person who will oversee that project from start to finish. That person is what the media likes to call a "czar." Actually, the fact that the media likes to use the term is the only defining feature of a czar. The term has been applied to a large variety of positions with a large variety of different roles and amounts of authority. Some czars are agency directors, such as the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, a position commonly refered to as "drug czar" since the Reagan administration. Many of the deputies of cabinet secretaries get called "czars," such as the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Financial Stability (TARP czar), a deputy to the Treasury Secretary, or the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics (weapons czar), deputy to the Secretary of Defense, or the Assistant Secretary for International Affairs and Special Representative for Border Affairs (border czar), deputy to the Secretary of State, or the Deputy Interior Secretary (california water czar). All of these "czars" are subject to senate confirmation.

It is a little puzzling that there has actually been a political debate over whether there should be any "czars." Does the legality of a particular position really depend on whether or not the media chooses to call a particular official a czar? Since the GOP took congress in 2011, there have been three pieces of legislation introduced on the so-called "czars:"

  1. The first was David Vitter's attempt to ban "czars," which he defined as presidential appointments not subject to senate confirmations to do work that would otherwise be delegated by cabinet-level officials, and who are engaged in policy making. Most of the "czars" are actually either senate confirmed or delegated by cabinet-level officials anyway, so this is a very small list of people. It would probably include the president's Special Envoys--people sent to represent the president himself in international disputes. Such tasks would normally be assigned to a diplomat in the State Department, but it is often far more effective to appoint a Special Envoy than use the regular channels. The president definitely should have the power to take part in summits--it is one of his constitutional duties to negotiate treaties--so this is not a power that should be taken away. It isn't clear if Vitter's bill would eliminate special advisors, often referred to as "czars", since while they engage in policy advice, they have no executive authorities.
  2. Then there was Marsha Blackburn's bill that would have "expressed the sense that" the president should submit a report reviewing the "responsibilities, authorities, and powers of his 'czars.'" I guess that's not a terrible bill, in that it does nothing and therefore has no downside risk. Of course, the bill doesn't clarify what "czar" actually refers to--it only specifies those "commonly referred to as 'czars.'" It would seem to me Obama could satisfy this bill by handing Congress a biography of the Romanovs, who certainly are commonly referred to as czars. Also, the irony of this bill seems to be lost on Blackburn, since if the bill had passed, Obama would have been forced to appoint a "czar czar" to investigate and compile a report on the use of czars.
  3. The third was the "Sunset all Czars" Act by Steve Scalise, which would require that the President or Congress impose a termination date for each czar position that is created. This is a bit silly, since all of the czars are political appointments that serve at the pleasure of the president. It is true that a couple of people that we call "czars" have been retained through multiple administrations, but that is because they are agency directors and therefore not technically considered czars under Scalise's bill. 
This is all a lesson on how language matters. At heart, the rise of "czars" during the Bush and Obama administrations represents a change in the media's favorite buzzwords more than it does anything else--all presidents since Andrew Jackson's "kitchen cabinet" have managed their administrations by delegating specific tasks to specific task managers, and calling upon outside expertise whenever it is needed. That's not unconstitutional abuse of powers; it is a sign of good governance.

Just to give some historical perspective, I would argue that our first "czar" was John Adams. When he was dispatched to Europe as a "minister plenipotentiary," Adam's official position was exactly equivalent to that of George Mitchell, the "mideast czar" serving as Obama's Special Envoy to the middle east.