Cantor’s czar problem

CANTOR’S CZAR PROBLEM…. During the Bush/Cheney years, the White House created new czars for almost every conceivable policy challenge. In the span of about six years, Rove’s White House oversaw the creation of a “food safety czar,” a “cybersecurity czar,” a “regulatory czar,” an “AIDS czar,” a “manufacturing czar,” an “intelligence czar,” a “bird-flu czar,” and a “Katrina czar.” It was such a common strategy for Bush, Rove, and the gang, that it quickly became the butt of jokes. Newsweek satirist Andy Borowitz suggested in 2007 that the White House needed a “lying czar” to “oversee all distortions and misrepresentations.”

House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) never seemed especially concerned about czars before, but he, like much of the GOP establishment, seems awfully worked up about the issue now. Consider Cantor’s Washington Post op-ed today:

By appointing a virtual army of “czars” — each wholly unaccountable to Congress yet tasked with spearheading major policy efforts for the White House — in his first six months, the president has embarked on an end-run around the legislative branch of historic proportions.

To be sure, the appointment of a few special officers to play a constructive role in a given administration is nothing new. What is new is the elevation of so many czars, with so much authority on endless policy fronts. Vesting such broad authority in the hands of people not subjected to Senate confirmation and congressional oversight poses a grave threat to our system of checks and balances.

What’s curious about this is how demonstrably wrong it is. These aren’t off-the-cuff comments Cantor made in an interview; this is an argument written for publication, presumably subjected to some kind of fact-checking process.

And yet, Cantor’s argument just isn’t true. He points to “at least 32 active czars,” which he insists are “unaccountable to Congress” and were “not subjected to Senate confirmation.” Specifically, Cantor complains about a “TARP czar,” a “technology czar,” and the “government performance czar” — all of whom, in our reality, were vetted by Congress and subjected to Senate confirmation. One of Cantor’s 32 was actually a position created by Bush, and another by Clinton.

Moreover, some of these “czars” only deserve the title in the most colloquial sense. In the State Department, for example, the administration has an official who works full time on shaping a policy on the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. This hardly sounds outrageous, but Cantor has labeled the official a “Guantanamo closure czar.” Obama, like all recent presidents, has deputy national security adviser for counter-terrorism. A ha, Cantor says, this is a “terrorism czar” who is part of “a virtual army.”

What’s more, some of these “czars” are new, but only because they’re working in response to new efforts and/or challenges. Previous administrations didn’t need a “TARP czar” before, because TARP didn’t exist. The “stimulus accountability czar” wasn’t needed before there was a stimulus. The “car czar” wasn’t needed before the collapse of the American auto industry. These are temporary gigs, not a new, permanent layer of bureaucracy.

I realize Cantor is easily confused. I can also appreciate Cantor’s reflexive desire to attack the president relentlessly, without regard for honesty or reality. And while there’s a legitimate issue to consider when it comes to a White House reliance on “czars” — it’s created tension between Congresses and White Houses for generations — Cantor’s op-ed is really quite foolish.