Controversy over policy czars is misplaced, scholars say

Lawmakers are trying to curb White House officials’ influence, but that’s assuming they actually have some.

Sen. Susan Collins is only the most recent lawmaker to demand the White House explain the role of various policy czars she and others believe may be undermining the oversight functions of Congress. Earlier this week, the Maine Republican unsuccessfully attempted to attach an amendment to the fiscal 2010 Interior-Environment Appropriations bill that would cut funding for the positions unless the White House made those officials accountable to congressional committees with jurisdiction over their policy areas.

Last week, Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., sent President Obama a letter requesting the legal justification for the positions in light of the appointments clause in the Constitution, which empowers the Senate "to weigh in on the appropriateness of significant appointments," Feingold wrote.

But for all the hand-wringing over the role of policy czars proliferating in the Obama White House, there's been little discussion about how effective high-level White House coordinators are at addressing complex challenges that cross existing organizational jurisdictions, such as climate change and health reform.

Recent presidents have had influential senior advisers charged with coordinating policy across the executive branch, said Stephen Hess, a veteran staffer of the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations and now senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution.

"Beyond the politics that have been kicked up, there is a question of these coordinating bodies [and their effectiveness]. I don't really think the ones President Obama has tried to put in place are much different from what previous presidents have done," Hess said. Some of the administration officials termed czars by the press and critics of the administration have questionable influence, he noted, pointing to former green jobs czar Van Jones, who he described as a third-tier adviser reporting to a powerless committee.

When Hess began his career in government during the Eisenhower administration, "government did a lot less," and coordinating policy across departments wasn't as difficult as it is today, he said. "Where there were conflicts, Sherman Adams, chief of staff, simply brought in the secretary of Commerce and the secretary of Labor and locked them in a room and told them not to come out until they had reached whatever compromise. That was about it."

But when Hess joined the Nixon administration to serve as deputy to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Nixon's urban affairs czar in today's parlance (a moniker Moynihan would have disdained, Hess said), the federal government had grown into a lot of cross-cutting issues that demanded better coordination.

Moynihan was successful because he was able to vet and get buy-in for policy proposals before Nixon announced them. "For administration-wide proposals it was a very good way to operate -- better than things just being handed down," Hess said. "There's no reason to think it couldn't work now."

Franklin Reeder, a consultant and management expert whose 35 years of public service included more than two decades at the Office of Management and Budget, said presidents of both parties have long created senior advisory positions to solve seemingly intractable problems for which no single agency or individual held responsibility.

"I'm not fond of the term czar," Reeder said. "It's a name with pejorative connotations hung on these people who are coordinators, facilitators, catalysts. At the end of the day, whether it's George Mitchell in the Middle East or Nancy-Ann DeParle on health care, none of them really own the problem and I think that's important."

Creating high-level coordinators allows a president to concentrate attention on a problem without expending a lot of resources or creating a large bureaucratic memorial to what might be a transitional issue, Reeder said.

"It's a way of saying to the world 'We care about this' and 'I have named a serious person who is going to be my person accountable for pushing this along,' " he said.

It's not always apparent at the outset where a czar will lead, Reeder said. "We've had other czars that have morphed into permanent entities in the executive office," he noted. "There's a risk that it becomes one of the competing entities as opposed to leveraging the mechanisms already in place."

As examples, Reeder cited the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which evolved out of the designation of a czar, as well as the U.S. Trade Representative, which has emerged over recent administrations as a major policy position, he said.

"Trade is a major economic issue and it crosses in difficult ways areas that are the provenance of the State Department, the Commerce Department, the Export-Import Bank, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and a number of other entities," Reeder said.

He speculated that the trade office evolved from genuine need, but said he was less convinced of the value of the drug policy office. "I appreciate the need for a coherent strategy for dealing with the supply side and the demand side [of the drug issue]," he said. "At the same time, I'm not sure you need a permanent entity to deal with it."

The recent controversy over Obama's czars is "much ado about very little," Reeder said. "Appointing individuals to serve as the focal point on some issues of presidential interest is a tested and [sometimes] very effective way of dealing with such challenges," he said.