WHAT’S THE OPPOSITE OF A RUBBER-STAMP?…. Senate Pro Tempore Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) has noticed that the White House has appointed a series of policy “czars” in the Obama administration cabinet, covering issues as diverse as healthcare and climate change. Byrd has also noticed that these “czars” don’t need Senate confirmation and may be protected, in theory, by executive privilege.
“Too often, I have seen these lines of authority and responsibility become tangled and blurred, sometimes purposely, to shield information and to obscure the decision-making process,” Byrd wrote in the letter.
“As presidential assistants and advisers, these White House staffers are not accountable for their actions to the Congress, to cabinet officials, and to virtually anyone but the president,” he continued. “In too many instances, White House staff have been allowed to inhibit openness and transparency, and reduce accountability.”
Byrd also urged the president to prohibit the right of executive privilege from appointees’ in agencies overseen by the Senate.
Two quick things. First, Byrd is probably right. The “czars” operate, as practical matter, as heads of offices that sort of look like presidential taskforces. Obama has vowed transparency and accountability, and I suspect he means it, but this current mechanism could be improved to satisfy the needs of congressional oversight.
And second, good for Byrd for calling Obama out on this. Congress is … what’s the phrase I’m looking for here … an independent branch of the government. The concept of oversight was effectively banished from 2001 to 2006, and the “rubber-stamp” phenomenon took hold. Congressional Republicans simply did what Bush and Cheney told them to do. It led to almost comical levels of secrecy and abuse, with no accountability at all.
I don’t doubt the new majority party will work with the White House on the president’s agenda. They’re largely on the same page, have the same goals, and are content to let Obama take the lead in establishing priorities. All of that’s fine. In a time like this, I’m thrilled there’s a president and a Congress ready to work together on an ambitious policy agenda.
But checks and balances still count, and Congress still has oversight responsibilities. It’s good of Byrd to remember that.