Three Former Policy Czars Offer Advice for Ebola Point Man Ron Klain

Adm. Thad Allen, shown here during the 2010 BP oil spill. Allen also coordinated the response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Adm. Thad Allen, shown here during the 2010 BP oil spill. Allen also coordinated the response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Patrick Semansky/AP file photo

Whether or not President Obama erred in tapping a Beltway political operative as his “Ebola czar,” Ron Klain is off and running in the post, leaving others to speculate on his prospects for success in addressing the highly fluid public health threat.

The kibitzers on the new czar have a rich history to draw on. White House reliance on such administrative point people produced a record of household names ranging from Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover, tapped to respond to the epic 1927 flooding in Louisiana, to William Simon, the more famous of President Nixon’s energy chiefs, to William Bennett, who popularized the anti-drug-authority position under the first President Bush.

“By nature, czars don’t have much line authority, so getting things done can be difficult without duplicating the role of a Cabinet member,” said Dan Blair, president and CEO of the National Academy of Public Administration. “You need clear lines and expectations for accountability—does the czar, for example, testify before Congress?”

Towson University political scientist Martha Joynt Kumar, a longtime observer of the presidency, said, “The benefit of facilitators working out of the White House is that it allows quick action in coordinating the many moving parts involved in developing policy in a crisis situation involving multiple departments and agencies.” The appointment is also “a statement that the president views the issue as a priority and is putting the energy of his office behind the person,” she said.

The downside, Kumar added, “is that secretaries naturally resent czars who bring decision making into the White House and reduce the importance of their own voices and the resources of their departments.”

Past czars have tended to be “more powerful when they arise from presidential initiative rather than congressional demands,” wrote Boise State University political scientist Justin Vaughn in a recent Brookings Institution blog post  based on his research on czars. “Presidents are best served when czars possess both administrative and substantive expertise.”

To explore how the “czar experience” turned out for officials who have served in such posts, Government Executive spoke to three of them: Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, who was the homeland security czar after the 9/11 terrorist attacks; Adm. Thad Allen, who handled both the 2005 response to Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast and the response to the 2010 BP oil spill; and Kristine Gebbie, a professor of nursing and former Washington State health administrator who served for one year as “AIDS czar” under President Clinton.

In general, those interviewed were not enamored of the Russian term “czar” as a label for the complex role they played in the American form of government.

Tom Ridge, Post-9/11

“Ron Klain has a lot of challenges ahead of him since the czar’s ability to coordinate activity in turf-conscious Washington is limited,” said Ridge, now principal at the strategic consulting firm Ridge Global. “He’s a good man, an able lawyer and well-connected politically, but they just dropped him into a hot landing zone, and he could use a little help.”

Klain’s lack of medical expertise is not the problem, Ridge stressed. It’s that the better pick for Obama would have been Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson (whose job Ridge was the first to occupy). “The authority and the responsibility to coordinate may be part of the press release, but the ability to get things done depends on the involvement of the president and the ability to control the flow of funds,” Ridge said. “In Washington, it’s tough to coordinate without a checkbook.”

When President George W. Bush brought Ridge to the White House, Bush had Budget Director Mitch Daniels and Chief of Staff Andy Card “work closely with me,” Ridge recalled, adding that his desk was across the hall from the Oval Office. Klain’s set-up working through Johnson is “two steps removed,” in Ridge’s view. Ebola “is an issue with domestic and international implication that in my judgment cries out for a direct report and access to the president,” the former 9/11 czar said.

Ridge accepted President Bush’s 2001 appointment unconditionally, he said. “We wrote the job description after I said ‘yes,’ and the president and I talked in very generic terms. But you need someone to hold the baton so that everyone’s singing off the same song sheet.”

Among Ridge’s first tasks was to pull officials from the FBI, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson and others into the Roosevelt Room to stand behind him to impress upon the public that “from now on, I’m the primary White House source” on the threats from terrorism, and that other officials should avoid independent press conferences.

Thad Allen, In Louisiana

Rather than dwell on whether czars are effective, said Thad Allen, now executive vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton, “the better discussion point is achieving a unity of effort in a complex situation that crosses organizational boundaries. It’s not always the same solution.” Because old statutes often trump current policies as to which officials have authority, the key is to examine the particular situation and decide how unity of effort among agencies is best achieved.

“During Katrina,” Allen said, Mike Brown [of the Federal Emergency Management Agency] was the principal federal official who went down to Baton Rouge, but the presumption by the state and local officials was that there’s no federal preemption of local authority, so there wasn’t federal command and control,”  Allen said. “I arrived in New Orleans five days late as the deputy principal official to Brown. What we did to right the ship was recognize they’d lost continuity of government, so the federal government needed to come in and establish command and control.”

With the Gulf Coast oil spill, the fact that state and local authority stops three miles offshore allowed the federal government to step in, Allen said, exploiting the ability under the national contingency plan for oil spills to assign a “national incident commander” with legal authority to direct the private BP. “That was a logical starting place to integrate the federal effort,” he said, coordinating the potentially clashing interests of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration.

Only in the Defense Department, said the Coast Guard veteran, is failure to obey an order subject to court martial. With other agencies, “it is not clear who should be the preeminent authority by statute, and it may or may not be someone with technical expertise who has to figure out what is the problem, what are the authorities and how many agencies have standing, and then reconcile the complexities.”

In the case of Ebola, Allen continued, the problem crosses the mission areas of the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health, over to transportation nodes and the Homeland Security Department’s enforcement of the border to state and local hospital authorities. “It’s really complex, and the challenge for the president is you’d like to treat the larger complex problem the same everywhere across government.” Coping with such complexity requires a “simple coordinating point, a combination of technical expertise, political acumen on expectations of the public, and plain old organizational management, authority and accountability,” he said.

It makes little sense, Allen said, to ask whether the choice of Ron Klain is right or wrong, because “if things go south, you need a unity of effort across the government, and you paint as you go. You’re not going to be dead-on in predicting, so instead you think about … moving toward solving the problem.”

Asked which past czars he considered most effective, Allen named Kenneth Feinberg, an attorney and “special master” who handled the task of doling out compensation to the victims of 9/11, the BP oil spill and the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.

Clinton’s AIDS Czar

Kristine Gebbie arrived at the White House in 1993 as the first AIDS czar, having served on President Reagan’s AIDS task force at a time when the disease was still highly stigmatized. “I was given very little direction, and was asked only to provide a weekly report on what I was doing,” she said by email from retirement in Australia. “In retrospect, I should have asked for more feedback on how that looked to the domestic policy staff.  The White House was reeling from the 'gays in the military' fiasco when I arrived, and was in the midst of developing the Clinton health plan, so AIDS was seen as a distraction or even a political hot potato.  So as long as I was fulfilling the campaign promise to name me, I was very much left alone.”

White House staff cuts forced Gebbie to scrounge for staff from other agencies, she recalled, and some, such as HHS, which had wanted the czar in-house, “would respond to direct requests or contacts, but with a bit of underlying 'Why are you messing with me?' ,” she said. Her big challenge was achieving clarity on a health problem viewed by many through the lens of politics. “Had I been a D.C. insider, far more familiar with the policy guild that exists there, it would have been clearer, and I suspect it is for the new Ebola czar,” she said.

As speaking invitations flooded in, she said, “Hindsight says I probably should have exercised more restraint in agreeing to the amount of travel I did, but it was a very important psychological boost to a community that had felt under siege for so long. “

In the end, Gebbie found her czar-ship “both very satisfying and very frustrating. I did break the 'conversational log jam' on discussion of AIDS issues in a number of places; I did negotiate clarification of a couple of key issues [such research funds from the Pentagon]; and I did get all Cabinet agencies beginning an employee education program,” she said. But “I was frustrated by my own failure to adequately recruit energetic backing in some agency quarters and was discouraged when AIDS activists complained I was wasting time helping with the Clinton health plan, when that would have solved a number of fiscal issues for the infected population.”

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec