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The War on Czars: Susan Collins on Thursday's Senate Hearing

5 years ago
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In the telling of Republicans, President Obama's appointment of some 30 policy "czars" -- aka the people the president has asked to spearhead various efforts -- is a serious threat to the republic. But if you don't watch Fox News, it's a threat you might never have heard of.

Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the Republican House whip, maintains that "by appointing a virtual army of 'czars' -- each wholly unaccountable to Congress . . . the president has embarked on an end-run around the legislative branch of historic proportions." Going further, House Republican Leader John Boehner asserts that the practice is "circumventing to Constitution." Fox host Glenn Beck keeps a running tab on his Web site of "Obama's czars" and their supposedly nefarious intrusions into Americans' everyday lives.

To get some perspective on this issue, I talked with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, about her panel's hearing Thursday on the so-called czars in the Obama administration. (The edited transcript is below.) While the White House will not send someone to testify at the hearing, Collins told Politics Daily that White House Counsel Greg Craig will be seeing her privately on Wednesday.

In an Oct. 16 letter Craig sent to Collins and obtained -- not from Collins -- by Politics Daily, Craig writes, "unfortunately, legitimate inquiries -- like yours -- that seek to understand how certain government functions are being administered have been accompanied by many frivolous attacks and false allegations by others." Craig was referring to attacks lobbed by show hosts at Fox News and other Obama critics.

"I am confident that the hearing [Committee Chair] Sen. [Joe] Lieberman and I will be having later this week will be a high-minded, rational and erudite discussion of the real issues of oversight, accountability and transparency. That's my goal and that's the chairman's goal," Collins told Politics Daily.

The hearing is titled "Presidential Advice and Senate Consent: The Past, Present, and Future of Policy Czars." These "czars," an informal title for a variety of positions (some confirmed by the Senate, some not), were not an issue during the Bush administration.

The White House and Collins don't agree with Beck's inflated claims of 32 czars. Collins is looking at 18 positions she asserts need to be more accountable to Congress -- 10 in the executive office of the president, eight in agencies or departments. You may have heard of some of these czars in the news lately: "pay czar" Kenneth Feinberg dealing with excessive executive salaries, or the now former "green czar," Van Jones, forced to resign after Beck launched attacks on him because of his past association with the radical left.

President Obama joked about the number of "czars" in his administration on June 19 at the Radio and Television Correspondents' Association Dinner. "ABC is planning a series called 'Dancing with the Czars,' " Obama quipped.

But the joking phase over at the White House ended as the czar issue became a demagogue's delight. White House Communications Chief Anita Dunn, overseeing the Obama team's drive against Fox News, posted at a "reality check" memo about these positions:

"Over the past several weeks, we've seen with increasing frequency and volume issues raised around the use of 'czars' by this Administration. Although some Members of Congress have asked serious questions around the makeup of the White House staff, the bulk of the noise you hear began first with partisan commentators, suggesting that this is somehow a new and sinister development that threatens our democracy. This is, of course, ridiculous," Dunn wrote.

Here's an edited transcript of my conversation with Collins:

Q. Are you trying to micromanage the White House?

A. Not at all. I am trying to preserve the constitutional role of Congress to oversee the executive branch.

Q. What do you think of the name "czar?" Does it get in the way of having a civilized discussion of White House management?

A. It is a useful term to identify positions with sweeping authority and the lack of accountability. There are some positions that have been described by czars that do not fall in the category that concerns me.

Q. What do you want the upshot of the hearing to be?
A. I want the president to agree to have everyone who occupies a czar position to agree to respond to any reasonable request to testify before Congress. And second, I want the president to provide us with a semi-annual report of the activities of the people who are filling these positions.

Q. Is the White House going to send a witness to your hearing?
A. The White House is not sending a witness to the hearing but they are sending Greg Craig to speak with me privately tomorrow, to meet with me.

Q. A letter Craig sent to you says any definition of czars would have included people in the Bush administration.
A. I have been very clear that this is not a partisan issue, it is in institutional issue. It has to do with respecting the elaborate system of checks and balances established by the Constitution. Not every position identified in the media reports as a czar is problematic, and the administration knows I feel that way. I've said it publicly time and time again...The White House, to obfuscate the issue, lumps them all in together, as if my concerns were about any kind of position...and they know that is not the case.

Q. Have you seen the White House blog post on czars by Anita Dunn?
A. No

Q. She goes after Glenn Beck and Fox who said there were 32 czars. Are you familiar with this and what Fox has been doing on this subject?
A. No. I am aware that there are higher numbers and that Glenn Beck has the higher number and some of my colleagues have used higher numbers. But that is not my focus. I have been very careful from the beginning to identify 18 positions that I believe are problematic and raise issues of oversight, transparency and accountability. After all, this is the administration that promised the most transparent and accountable administration in history, so I don't understand why the administration is resisting having these individuals testify before Congress.

Q. Why is Greg Craig seeing you privately and not testifying?
A You'd have to ask him

Q. Did you worry about these issues when Bush was president?
A. When President Bush was president we did not have this proliferation...This administration has had a proliferation of czars that is unprecedented. But I think that if the next president is a Republican and creates a multitude of czar positions, that would be of concern to me as well.

Q. Sen. Feingold had a hearing on the constitutionality of these positions. What is your conclusion?
A. It is an open question on whether or not the appointment of czars violates the appointments clause of the Constitution. It is not clear; the jury is still out on this issue. My concern is that it is very difficult for Congress to exercise its oversight responsibilities when it is unclear on who is making policy and whom we should hold accountable. For example, when it comes to health care, is it Nancy-Ann DeParle, who I respect greatly, but is she the one making policy or is it (Health and Human Services Secretary) Kathleen Sebelius, the cabinet official...I am not disputing that the president has the right to appoint advisors. But if they are going to have sweeping policy responsibilities, they ought to be accountable to Congress and the administration ought to be willing to have them testify, all of them.

Q. How hard is it to have a rational discussion about this because of the media echo chamber out there that has demagogued this issue?
A. I am confident that the hearing Sen. Lieberman and I will be having later this week will be a high minded, rational and erudite discussion of the real issues of oversight, accountability and transparency. That's my goal and that's the chairman's goal.

Footnotes: Of the 18 positions Collins is concerned about, 10 would have to testify if called and five have already, a spokesman for the White House said. As for Obama and his transparency pledge, Craig brushes aside that point in his letter to Collins: "We recognize that it is theoretically possible that a President could create new positions that inhibit transparency or undermine congressional oversight. That is simply not the case, however, in the current administration."

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