You Can't Spell "Crazy" Without "C-Z-A-R"

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on August 3, 2009

I suppose the fact that the Obama Administration has created more czars than have the Russians is good for a laugh or sixteen, but in fact, surpassing the number of czars the Russians have had is a source for deep concern. It is easy enough to look at the expansion of czardom as an expansion of big government–which quite frankly, should be enough to worry us. But the Imperial Russian gloss on the Imperial Obama Presidency is bad news for another reason: It constitutes a circumvention–and therefore, a violation–of the Constitutional process.

House Republican Whip Eric Cantor pointed out this circumvention in an editorial, in which he charged–quite properly–that the Obama Administration was acting to get around Congressional oversight of its activities. Those who spent the whole of the Bush Administration raging against what they perceived to be overweening Executive authority ain’t seen nothing yet:

The administration has a Mideast peace czar (not to be confused with the Mideast policy czar), a Sudan czar and a Guantanamo closure czar. Then there’s the green jobs czar, sometimes in conflict with the energy czar, who talks to the technology czar, who sometimes crosses paths with the urban affairs czar. We mustn’t forget the Great Lakes czar or the WMD czar, who no doubt works hand in hand with the terrorism czar. The stimulus accountability czar is going through a rough time right now, as is the TARP czar — but thankfully they have to answer to the government performance czar. And seemingly everyone falls under the auspices of the information czar. In a government full of duplicative bureaucracies, adding more layers with overlapping responsibilities hardly seems the way to go.

Even Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd (W.Va.) was fearful enough to pen a letter to President Obama in February highlighting his concerns with the administration’s tactics. The Constitution mandates that the Senate confirm Cabinet-level department heads and other appointees in positions of authority — known as “principal officers.” This gives Congress — elected by the people — the power to compel executive decision-makers to testify and be held accountable by someone other than the president. It also ensures that key appointees cannot claim executive privilege when subpoenaed to come before Congress.

It should be noted that three of the czars that Cantor identifies were in fact confirmed by the Senate. But lots of others weren’t. It should also be noted that the Bush Administration used czars as well; something that paradoxically, the Obama Administration’s defenders are using to defend Obama. One didn’t think that the defense of “the Bush Administration did this stuff too!” would be used by the Administration of HopeAndChange, but life is apparently full of surprises.

Dollars to donuts says that Byrd’s objections–not to mention Cantor’s–will be ignored. The Obama Administration knows full well that its use of czars, and the commensurate ability to ignore Congressional oversight is a tool too valuable to give away by doing something so archaic as complying with the Constitutional process. The Administration also believes that it can get away with this sort of thing; not without reason, one might add. Robert Byrd is old, spends lots of time in a hospital, and may be dying. Eric Cantor is a nasty, and evil Republican, whose party is in the minority, so his word doesn’t count for anything as far as the Administration is concerned.

The Administration’s czar craze, and the power grabs attendant to that craze, is of a piece with its power grabs on other fronts as well. It has issued hardly a peep of protest as Congress deliberated on whether to allow the Administration to control the salaries of all employees of companies receiving government capital injections. The abrogation of contracts is a favorite activity for the Obama Administration, and the fact that contracts are abrogated in order to allow the Administration to repay the political favors shown to it by other constituencies is deeply abusive of the rule of law. Petulance can drive Administration efforts to bulldoze political opponents; reconciliation may potentially be used to ram through health care reform because President Obama “was extremely sensitive — even ‘thin-skinned’ — to the fact that the stimulus bill received no GOP votes in the House.” The Administration’s actions in formulating detention policy, and its policies concerning national security and Executive authority remind observers of Democratic portrayals of the Bush Administration’s actions on these fronts; recall, of course, that those portrayals were hardly flattering. And the Administration fires people who speak truth to power.

The Administration has even decided to engage in a power grab on the issue of signing statements. It was bad when the Bush Administration attached signing statements to legislation, but it should be clear by now that the Obama Administration has no problem whatsoever embracing expansions of Executive authority endorsed by the Bush Administration. To be sure, there has been some Congressional pushback on a signing statement attached to legislation concerning aid to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, but it would be surprising if such pushback continues and a Democratic Congress repeatedly takes on a Democratic President on the issue of Presidential powers. Of course, I don’t have nearly the problem with signing statements that others appear to, but that’s not the point. The point–as the Congressional Quarterly article makes clear–is that the Obama Administration is using signing statements a great deal, despite the fact that Candidate Obama denounced the use of signing statements and pledged not to engage in the practice.

Expect the signing statements to continue, however. Expect the broad assertions of Executive authority on issues of national security to be maintained. Expect the White House to continue to use a heavy hand to interfere in the workings of the economy. And expect there to be more czars. Leaving office, Dick Cheney puckishly predicted that the Obama Administration, for all of its stated concerns regarding the Imperial Presidency, would not renounce powers given to it by the Bush Administration. Turns out, he was right.

Read more at Pejman Yousefzadeh’s blog.

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