Thursday, March 05, 2009

The Crowded White House

After eight years of an administration that effectively by-passed Congress on just about everything, it is understandable that the new Congress might just be a little touchy when it comes to a new administration which is showing some signs of continuing the tradition. No, President Obama isn't working out of Karl Rove's Handbook to Effective Unitary Presidentiality, but he is setting up a system of in-house advisers and counselors, "Czars", if you will, that seems to dilute the powers and the duties of Cabinet members who must first go through the Senate confirmation process before assuming their offices.

From today's Los Angeles Times:

As President Obama names more policy czars to his White House team -- high-level staff members who will help oversee the administration's top initiatives -- some lawmakers and Washington interest groups are raising concerns that he may be subverting the authority of Congress and concentrating too much power in the presidency. ...

Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) became concerned enough to send a cautionary letter to Obama last week. At times, he said, past White House staffers have assumed duties that should be the responsibility of officials cleared through the Senate confirmation process. He cited President Bush's naming of homeland security czar Tom Ridge as an example.

"They rarely testify before congressional committees and often shield the information and decision-making process behind the assertion of executive privilege," Byrd wrote of past czars and White House staffers in similar positions. At times, he said, one outcome has been to "inhibit openness and transparency, and reduce accountability."

"The rapid and easy accumulation of power by White House staff can threaten the constitutional system of checks and balances," Byrd said. ...

In addition to naming [Nancy-Ann] DeParle to coordinate healthcare policy, Obama has tapped Carol Browner to be White House energy czar, a post that could overlap with the functions of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Energy Department and other agencies. Adolfo Carrion Jr., a former Bronx borough president, is urban affairs czar, a job that may dovetail with the functions of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. And Paul A. Volcker, Obama's big-picture economic czar, must coordinate with the Treasury Department and other agencies.

While it is tempting to assert that this sort of complaint should have been made eight years ago before the White House power grab of the Bush administration, the fact is that the complaint is just as appropriate now as it would have been then.

The current administration argues that the problems which must be faced often cut across traditional cabinet lines. For example, a sane energy policy can't be squirreled away in just the Energy Department's portfolio. Health insurance programs might affect policies in the Labor Department as well as that of Health and Human Services. The "czar" position was created to make certain that everyone in the administration was on the same page.

The answer to the argument is, of course, that cabinet meetings are supposed to address those kinds of problems. What Sen. Byrd and other members of Congress fear is that those cabinet members who have been through the confirmation process and who must testify before Congress as necessary are nothing more than public faces. The real power is being centered in a White House which has inherited an enhanced executive privilege assertion, with no transparency, no accountability, and no checks and balances.

Frankly, I think Sen. Byrd's concern is justified. It is past time for Congress to reassert itself in the democratic process. No president, regardless of party or size of victory, must be allowed to assume the powers that the last administration did.

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Blogger Cosa Nostradamus said...

In the words of Lord Acton, "absolute power corrupts absolutely."

In the words of Melvin Kaminsky, "It's good to be the King."

In the words of William Claude Dukenfield, "looking for loopholes," might be one reason a guy might have studied Constitutional Law to begin with...

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