Obama's House of Czars

Obama's House of Czars

By Mike Memoli - July 10, 2009

While President Obama was in Russia this week, a new czar was born.

Five thousand miles from Moscow in a conference room in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced the creation of a new position in the Food and Drug Administration dedicated to monitoring food safety. The Deputy Commissioner for Foods "will be responsible for restructuring and revitalizing the FDA's work to protect our food supply," Sebelius said, one of several "critical steps" the administration was taking to prevent future outbreaks.

In Depth: Meet 13 Obama Administration Czars

This annoucement was the latest example of the Obama administration's attempt to address one of its priorities with new personnel. Such point people are often referred to as "czars," and while the term is at times applied somewhat broadly, six months into Obama's first term White House watchers have identified as many as two dozen of these officials working in the Executive Branch - leading John McCain to joke recently: "Obama has more czars than the Romanovs."

Some of these positions are not new to Obama, however. The Bush administration had intelligence and homeland security czars, informal positions that eventually grew to full administration posts. One of the first references to a drug czar actually was attributed to then-Sen. Joe Biden in 1982, referring to the official who now leads the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

It's also not uncommon for a new president to begin his administration by appointing individuals to head up major initiatives. Obama has appointed individuals to oversee everything from the closure of Guantanamo Bay to the cleanup of the Great Lakes. In the campaign, he promised to create an Autism Czar - a position that remains unfulfilled as of today - though he has already hired a "green jobs" czar and a "climate" czar.

"It's a product of basically two things, number one - the campaign promises to change policy. And number two, you strike when the iron is hot," said Stephen Wayne, professor of government at Georgetown University.

Others have been a result of new policy rather than assigned to produce it. Ed Montgomery was assigned to be the "Car Czar" once the federal government assumed majority ownership in GM; Earl Devaney is tasked with overseeing the implementation of the stimulus.

The administration itself rarely refers to these officials as "czars." "No, I think the title is special master," press secretary Robert Gibbs corrected a reporter last month when asked about the new "Pay Czar," Kenneth Feinberg.

Nevertheless, the appointment by Obama of czars in the highest level of government to oversee his most significant legislative initiatives has attracted scrutiny. Carol Browner, assistant to the president for energy and climate change, is one of 22 West Wing officials earning the maximum salary of $172,200. Nancy-Ann DeParle, counselor to the president and Director of the Office of Health Care Reform, is working outside of the Department of Health and Human Services to oversee the administration's most coveted achievement.

The trend in appointing high-level czars like Browner and DeParle has changed the traditional role of Cabinet secretaries and agency chiefs.

"They want more coordination from the office of the President, and less from the departments," Wayne said. "Clearly, the heads of the agencies are going to be primarily responsible for administration [rather than policy]. They certainly won't have the dominant voice in it."

Despite the outsized role of some of these czars, as executive staff appointees, most are not confirmed by Congress, prompting some to raise constitutional questions.

"As presidential assistants and advisers, these White House staffers are not accountable for their actions to the Congress, to cabinet officials, or to virtually anyone but the president," Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.V.) wrote in a letter to Obama in February. "They rarely testify before congressional committees, and often shield the information and decision-making process behind the assertion of executive privilege."

Byrd requested language be included in the fiscal 2010 Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Bill calling for these White House policy coordinators "to keep Congress fully and currently informed of such activities." That language was approved by the committee Thursday. "Our office is also waiting for additional information from the White House about these positions," Byrd spokesperson Jesse Jacobs said. "This is an ongoing, long-term process that will require the Congress to keep asking questions to ensure that executive officers and staff remain accountable to the elected representatives of the people."

Notwithstanding questions raised by Byrd and others, the constitutional right of the executive to craft his own administration has faced no significant challenge.

"The constitutional issue is probably not the key issue,"said Gary Schmitt, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. "The key issue is whether they've created kind of a gerry-rigged system that makes policy-making difficult." Schmitt predicts that the administration "is heading toward a reality check" when it may need to reorganize the bureaucracy it's created.

Case in point: when the Office of Health Care Reform was created in the West Wing, a companion office with additional staff was created in the Department of Health and Human Services.

"You can imagine where you would think that having a czar in one or two cases would makes sense because it allows you to consolidate policymaking in a focused way," Scmitt said. "The problem is that if you multiply these czars or equivalent of czars in a variety of different areas, then what you've created is a chaos. The result is the policy making process gets very cluttered, because you don't know whose responsible for what."

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Mike Memoli covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at

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