WASHINGTON – Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., and Ranking Member Susan Collins, R-Me., heard testimony Thursday from four witnesses, including former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, about the proliferation of White House “czars.”
At issue: Whether the widespread use of such appointments was causing management dysfunction, duplication of effort and dilution of the authority given to Senate-approved, Cabinet-level officials. At the hearing, “Presidential Advice and Senate Consent: The Past, Present and Future of Policy Czars,” witnesses and committee members also examined the competing interests between the President’s right to appoint his own policy advisors and Congress’ constitutional responsibility to oversee Executive Branch activities.
Since January, the Obama Administration has named at least 18 new czars. Unlike nominees appointed to head federal agencies, czars do not have to face the Senate confirmation process. Their qualifications are not vetted by the Senate, and they are not required to testify before the Congress. Additionally, their duties and functions remain unclear.
In April, Senator Collins first raised the alarm on the growing use of czars. On Thursday, she emphasized that her concern is not driven by partisanship or politics but by a strongly held desire to keep the government transparent and accountable to the American people.
“This is not an academic exercise,” she said at the start of the hearing. “Czars – not Cabinet secretaries – are negotiating with members of Congress on key policy issues. Where is the Cabinet official in these talks? As I have stated before, this is not a partisan issue; this is not a political issue. It is an issue of institutional imperative and Constitutional prerogative.”
Senator Collins noted that while czars are not new to the American political landscape, “the recent proliferation of ‘czars’ is a cause for real concern because they oversee a growing number of critical policy areas that are already under the purview of other top managers,” she said. “Indeed, this Administration has appointed at least 18 new ‘czars.’ None of these officials was vetted through the Senate confirmation process. Their authorities and duties remain unclear. Their future plans have received little public airing. Their relationship with Cabinet-level officials is undefined. They rarely, if ever, testify before Congressional committees.
“In short, this bumper crop of czars has left the public and the Congress with many worrisome, bottom-line questions: Who is in charge? Who is responsible for what? Who is directing policy – the czar or the Cabinet official? And most important, who can Congress and the American people hold accountable for government decisions that affect their lives?”
She also stressed the constitutional obligation of the Congress to oversee the executive branch and questioned whether the naming of so many czars was undermining that charge.
“The responsibility of Congress to oversee the Executive branch is fundamental to our Constitutional system,” she said. “That responsibility is on display whenever the Senate performs its explicit Constitutional ‘advice and consent’ role or whenever Congress holds hearings on particular policy matters. This oversight ensures the accountability and transparency our Founding Fathers envisioned. And it is that oversight obligation which brings us here today.
“The proliferation of ‘czars’ diminishes the ability of Congress to conduct its oversight responsibilities and to hold officials accountable for their actions. These ‘czars’ can create confusion about which officials are responsible for various policy decisions. They can duplicate or dilute the statutory authority and responsibilities that Congress has conferred on Cabinet officers and other senior Executive branch officials.
“And, they can circumvent the constitutionally mandated process of ‘advice and consent.’ Czars can exercise considerable power and influence over major policy issues, and yet, they are not required to clear the rigorous Senate confirmation process. Czars bypass this important Constitutional protection through a unilateral grant of authority from the President.
“Until the Administration answers important questions about the role of its czars and makes all of them available to testify before Congress, it will not have fulfilled the promises President Obama made to the American people: that the government should be more transparent and accountable, not less.”
Witnesses testified that the President has the right to name the advisors of his choice. But several Senators stressed the need for public accountability, rather than private consultation, which is how White House advisors typically engage members of Congress.
Former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, who had previously served as a homeland security advisor to President Bush, testified about the conflicts that arise between a policy czar and a Senate-confirmed Secretary responsible for the same policy.
In addition to Ridge, the witnesses were Dr. James Pfiffner, a professor at the George Mason School of Public Policy who specializes in the presidency, American National Government and public management; Lee Casey, former Attorney-Advisor in the Office of Legal Counsel at the U.S. Justice Department; and Dr. Harold Relyea, a former Specialist in American National Government at the Congressional Research Service.
During the hearing, Senator Collins said there is a major difference between czars and traditional presidential advisors. The czars, she noted, have “significant policy responsibilities.”
She asked the witnesses to assess her amendment, which was blocked by a procedural tactic on Sept. 22 from coming to the Senate floor for an up-or-down vote. That amendment would have required the presidential czars to appear before congressional committees and to submit reports, twice a year, to the Congress about their activities. The proposal, Senator Collins said, “strikes me as a reasonable approach.”
Ridge agreed that if the czars are involved in policy implementation, then Senator Collins’ approach is correct. It does make sense, he said. If one can identify czars who have the responsibility to “implement and execute” policy, then “I’m there,” he said.
In closing, Senator Collins said that the hearing was critical. “This issue has been of concern to me for many, many months,” she said, and it has raised important and troubling questions about the fundamental, Constitutional oversight responsibilities of the Congress.