Observers worry White House 'czars' have too much power

Do President Obama's White House "czars" have too much power? Should they face Senate confirmation? These concerns have been raised by a growing number of observers as the president's team of czars continues to expand.

Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., sent a letter to Obama on Feb. 23, cautioning that "the rapid and easy accumulation of power by the White House staff can threaten the constitutional system of checks and balances." He urged the president to limit the power of these high-level White House officials who are not cleared by Congress.

In the Washington Post this week, Yale law and political science professor Bruce Ackerman went a step further, arguing that czars should in fact undergo Senate confirmation. Ackerman noted that if Tom Daschle had been appointed only to the health czar post and not as Health and Human Services secretary, his tax problems might never have surfaced and he would be well on his way to leading the charge for health care reform. Furthermore, Ackerman wrote, while HHS Secretary-designate Kathleen Sebelius goes through Senate confirmation, her White House counterpart, Nancy-Ann DeParle, will "escape scrutiny" despite the fact that "DeParle will also play a commanding role in health care reform, and her record is less well known than that of Sebelius."

In an interview with Lost In Transition, Ackerman reiterated his concerns. "The idea of appointing a large number of czars -- loyalists to the president -- is like a king's courtship," he said. "They're highly intelligent, and they're 100 percent loyal to the president, and [he] never has to justify their selection to anybody else."

Ackerman emphasized that no particular Obama appointment compelled him to write the piece. But he said that this president's increased use of czars, coupled with former Vice President Dick Cheney's powerful "policy czar" role in the Bush administration, indicate a disturbing trend in the executive branch. "The creation of this hyper-politicized staff in the White House is both an example and a caution about the uses and abuses of the president's power," Ackerman said.

On the other hand, Ackerman also acknowledged that the Senate confirmation process itself is "self-indulgent" and convoluted. "The Senate has to get much more serious and professional about this," he said. "It's horrible to have a government for six months that simply has most high-policy positions vacant. It's just unacceptable."

Check out the blog Lost in Transition, a joint effort of Government Executive and National Journal.

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