by John W. Whitehead
"A democracy requires accountability, and accountability requires transparency."--President Barack Obama in a 2009 memorandum to executive departments and agencies
With all the partisan bickering clogging up the airwaves lately and obscuring the more vital news of the day, it's difficult at times to differentiate between what's a legitimate concern and mere spin. However, if you can manage to get past the political punditry of Glenn Beck and other media noisemakers who have been sounding the alarm over the Obama administration's use of so-called policy czars, there is legitimate cause for concern.
During his nine months in office, Obama has appointed an AfPak czar, an AIDS czar, a car czar, a border czar, a climate czar, a cyber security czar, a green jobs czar, a pay czar, a drug czar, a health czar, a science czar and a war czar, and that's just to name a few of the approximately 32 czars in the Obama White House. And, most likely, there's more to come.
While some of these individuals are vetted by Congress, many are not. As former judge Andrew Napolitano recently observed:
The czars may be hired without FBI background checks or Senate confirmations and they serve at the pleasure of the president. Because they work in the West Wing and directly for the president, they enjoy almost total immunity from any accountability to Congress. Supreme Court decisions even immunize presidential assistants from replying to subpoenas from Congress for documents or testimony, under the claim of executive privilege.
The problem with the use of policy czars, a practice that dates back to Franklin D. Roosevelt and became very popular with George W. Bush, is that it allows the president to operate in secret, beyond the scrutiny of Congress. As a result, the reach and power of the Executive Branch has expanded well beyond constitutional limits.
This is a legitimate concern. During Bush's two terms in office, he managed to assemble an assorted and impressive range of powers and greatly increased the authority of the executive branch and the reach of the federal government. However, Obama was supposed to be an agent of change. Instead, as we've already seen, he seems to be marching in lockstep with his predecessor when it comes to matters of secrecy and attempts to centralize power in the office of the presidency.
In fact, these policy czars are just another attempt to sidestep our system of checks and balances, which is perhaps one of the most innovative ideas of the Framers: the power of each branch to check the others was intended to ensure freedom and prevent tyranny. Just as importantly, it prevents one branch of government from dominating the others. One of the chief concerns of the Framers when they created a constitutional system that included checks and balances and a separation of powers was to significantly limit the power of the President.
Another problem posed by this system of czars is the bureaucracy--and the excessive cost that inevitably goes hand in hand, funded by taxpayer dollars. In our present economic crisis, it's difficult to understand why President Obama would continue to spend lavishly and further extend the bureaucratic arms of Washington. For example, Van Jones, as Green Jobs Czar, commanded a budget slightly over $30 billion.
The essential ingredient to democratic government is accountability. Government officials and government bureaucracy must be accountable to our representatives. If not, then we are not operating as a constitutional republic.
Thus, those who dismiss concerns being raised over the czars as mere right-wing scare tactics are making a grave mistake. Even some within the Democratic Party have expressed reservations about these White House staffers. Indeed, as early as February 2009, Senator Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) voiced the concern that Obama's appointment of White House "czars" to oversee federal policy amounted to a power grab by the executive branch. In a letter to Obama, Byrd stated:
The rapid and easy accumulation of power by White House staff can threaten the constitutional system of checks and balances. At the worst, White House staff have taken direction and control of programmatic areas that are the statutory responsibility of Senate-confirmed officials. They have even limited access to the president by his own cabinet members. As presidential assistants and advisers, these White House staffers are not accountable for their actions to the Congress, to cabinet officials, and to virtually anyone but the president. They rarely testify before congressional committees, and often shield the information and decision-making process behind the assertion of executive privilege. In too many instances, White House staff have been allowed to inhibit openness and transparency, and reduce accountability.
Mind you, this criticism comes from none other than the longest-serving Democratic senator--a member of Obama's own party and a constitutional scholar who, according to Politico, "has always stood up for the legislative branch in its role in checking the power of the White House."
(Unlike the rest of Congress, which is busy scoring points off each other, Byrd is doing his job by attempting to hold the Executive Branch accountable. He actually carries a copy of the Constitution with him and frequently cites it in speeches. The rest of Congress would do well to follow his lead in this regard. In fact, they'd be ahead of the game if they at least took the time to read the Constitution.)
All of this comes down to accountability and transparency, something that was sorely lacking in the Bush administration. A democratic government is one that is accountable to the people. However, if that is not happening, then the president is more or less a king and the government nothing more than a dictatorship.