Senators Take On Obama's Czars

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Callie Shell / Aurora for TIME

President Obama listens to Senator Joe Lieberman during a joint press conference in the Senate Radio-Televsion Gallery of the Capitol

There has been a lot of talk — and some hyperbole — in recent weeks surrounding the Obama Administration's growing stable of imperial "czars." But is there anything to all this chatter? This is what the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will examine on Thursday in the first full committee hearing on the topic. At the heart of the session: does the proliferation of czars — a practice favored by past Presidents from both parties — undermine the ability of Congress to conduct oversight of the Executive Branch?

"The use of so-called czars in the White House certainly didn't begin with President Obama," says Senator Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent and the committee's chairman. "But it has grown over the years, and when misused, it may well frustrate the ability of Congress to carry out our responsibility to oversee how the taxpayer's money we appropriate is being spent. The questions raised by the continuing use of White House czars are important and complicated, but the answers are not obvious or easy."

George Washington, looking for guidance on how to run the country, turned to the Senate and then the Supreme Court for advice. After being rebuffed by both, he created the first Cabinet, which consisted of an Attorney General and the Secretaries of State, War and Treasury. But 30 years later, the official Cabinet was supplanted in the graces of the nation's seventh President by an unofficial circle of advisers that Andrew Jackson called his "Kitchen Cabinet." Over the years, Grover Cleveland had a "Fishing Cabinet," Teddy Roosevelt a "Tennis Cabinet," Warren G. Harding a racy "Poker Cabinet" and Herbert Hoover something he called a "Medicine-Ball Cabinet."

But the first President to truly create czars as we know them today was Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had his "brain trust" and "assistant presidents," according to Harold Relyea, a retired 35-year veteran of the Congressional Research Service who specialized in presidential powers, which he wrote in a statement for the hearing.

Every Administration has defined its czars differently, but generally speaking, they are appointees, not confirmed by the Senate, who help coordinate issues across agencies, says James Pfiffner, a presidential historian at George Mason University. These advisers cannot make decisions themselves; instead, they whittle down the options to present to the President. For example, the National Security Adviser — a position created by John F. Kennedy to navigate disputes between the Departments of State and Defense after the Bay of Pigs — falls under Pfiffner's definition of a czar. Yet these days the title of czar has varied wildly. Conservative political commentator Glenn Beck, for example, has a list of 32 "princelings" on his website; he has claimed the scalp of one of them, green-jobs czar Van Jones. Jones was widely criticized by conservatives for past associations with the radical left and was forced to resign. Pfiffner, however, did not define Jones as a czar, since he reported to a department head who answered directly to the President and Congress.

Presidents have grown fond of czars in recent years in part because federal bureaucracy, even when led by a strong Cabinet officer, can be frustratingly slow. What inflames some on the right is that the Obama White House has consolidated a huge amount of power in the West Wing by appointing so many quasi-agency policy overseers: Larry Summers on the economy, Nancy-Ann DeParle on health care and Carol Browner on the environment. Both in theory and in practice, they seem to have more clout than many Cabinet members, chiefly because of their proximity to the Oval Office and the fact that Obama tapped them to sit there. There is a danger that Congress's constitutional duty of oversight is being skirted, Lee Casey, a partner at the law firm Baker Hostetler and a former adviser to the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, is expected to tell the committee, according to his written testimony, a copy of which was obtained by TIME.

Lieberman and Susan Collins, the committee's top Republican, had hoped the Administration would send a representative to testify. Instead, Collins received a letter from White House counsel Greg Craig. "It is simply false to suggest that any of these (or other similar) positions are newly created 'czars' that lack accountability to Congress," Craig wrote in the letter, obtained by TIME. "Under this definition, the Bush Administration reportedly had 36 czar positions filled by 46 different people — more than the highest estimated current number. Finally, it is worth noting that many of the same critics who have attacked President Obama on this issue aggressively supported the creation of numerous 'czars' in previous administrations. This type of partisan politics is not useful to any thoughtful public debate, and we hope that you will continue to reject these unfounded attacks."

When asked if the hearing will have a Glenn Beck tone, Collins says with a laugh, "Have you looked at our witnesses? Our witnesses are people with academic expertise who have been very thoughtful in their comments on this." That doesn't mean she and Lieberman don't have serious concerns about some of the czars — 18 of whom were listed in a letter to Craig. "There's been a real proliferation of czars under this Administration," Collins says. "But my concerns are not partisan ones. I see this as a matter of Congress's institutional prerogatives and its ability to carry out its oversight responsibilities." Collins is asking that the Administration make all czars available to Congress to testify and that the President submit a semi-annual report on their activities. Lieberman, while sharing her concerns, does not support forcing the Administration to make the czars available or to report back to Congress — at least not yet. That, after all, is what the hearing is about: to find out how concerned Congress should be.