Has Obama Administration Gone A 'Czar' Too Far?

President Obama did not invent policy czars, but he has contributed to their proliferation — by appointing some three dozen, critics say. Conservatives have been raising concerns for months, and now a Senate panel led by Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold is looking into whether these presidentially appointed managers are a way to get around the Senate's confirmation process.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, Im Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And Im Steve Inskeep.

We're following up this morning on the debate over the Obama administration's so-called czars. Those presidential advisers oversee issues ranging from Afghanistan to the auto industry. Policy czars are not new, both President Bush and his father used them for everything from drugs to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Their proliferation in President Obama's administration has drawn criticism.

NPR's Audie Cornish reports that Congress is asking if we've gone a czar too far.

AUDIE CORNISH: First, understand that no one in the administration actually holds the title of czar. Its media jargon, handy for condensing titles like Director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy, into a tidy term like Energy Czar.

The label appears to have popped up as early as the 1830s, with President Andrew Jackson hurling the epithet against what he considered a power-hungry head of the Bank of the United States. Critics today use it roughly the same way.

Mr. GLEN BECK (Political Commentator, Fox News): Look at the power that we've handed out to these unelected, unconfirmed people. They dont answer to anyone.

CORNISH: That's Fox News political commentator Glen Beck. Beck spearheaded a campaign investigating the background of the Obama administration's Green Jobs Czar, Van Jones, that led the appointee to resign. The incident sparked questions from both sides of the aisle about the vetting and accountability of policy czars.

Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold chaired a Senate hearing on the issue yesterday.

Senator RUSS FEINGOLD (D-Wisconsin, Chairman, Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution): While there is a long history of the use White House advisers and czars, that does not mean we can assume they are constitutionally appropriate. But often constitutional problems creep up slowly.

CORNISH: White House officials declined to attend. But presidential counsel Greg Craig sent a letter making a case for the cadre of advisers. First, Craig says several of the czar jobs were established long before Obama, like the directors for National Intelligence or Drug Policy. Others were appointed by or answered directly to Senate confirmed cabinet heads, not the president.

But most importantly, Craig writes, The advisers who report to the White House are simply advisers - nothing more, nothing less.

And historian Bradley Patterson agrees.

Mr. BRADLEY PATTERSON (Historian): White House staff members have no legal responsibility other than to assist and advise the president.

CORNISH: He's a former White House aide who served in several presidential administrations, including Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon and Ford. Patterson says these advisers may have the president's ear but they dont have the ability to enforce laws or control budgets, and he says they dont have to be approved by Congress.

Mr. PATTERSON: It would be unthinkable that law clerks of the Supreme Court should be in any way accountable to the president or a Congress. It would be unthinkable that the appointments of any other personal legislative or committee staff, here at the Capitol, should be approved by the White House. The independence of these three groups of staff is indispensable to the separation of powers.

CORNISH: But Matt Spalding, of the Heritage Foundation think-tank, disagrees, saying that the role of Obama's policy czars hasnt been so clear-cut. He points to the policy advisers on executive pay and climate change, as czars whose authorities seem murky.

Dr. MATT SPALDING (Director, B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies, Heritage Foundation): If a agent of the president is actually doing things that go to the extent of seeming step on an officer that has been approved by Congress, that strikes me as potentially raising a serious issue.

CORNISH: As for what Congress can do about it, witnesses suggested everything from defunding White House czar offices to exacting promises from future cabinet heads that policy czars be allowed to testify before Congress.

For now, there are only more hearings to come and no quick action is expected.

Audie Cornish, NPR News, the Capitol.

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