Their power is not ‘unknown’

THEIR POWER IS NOT ‘UNKNOWN’…. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) of Texas recently wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post characterizing White House “czars” as an outrageous and unconstitutional abuse. It was filled with errors of fact and judgment, including the notion that having 32 “czars” is “unprecedented” (Bush had 36).

But of particular interest was Hutchison’s argument that White House “czars … hold unknown levels of power over broad swaths of policy,” which makes their offices constitutionally dubious.

Over the weekend, David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey, veterans of the Reagan and H.W. Bush Justice Departments, explained that Hutchison is flat wrong.

The White House czars are presidential assistants charged with responsibility for given policy areas. As such, they are among the president’s closest advisers. In many respects, they are equivalent to the personal staff of a member of Congress. To subject the qualifications of such assistants to congressional scrutiny — the regular confirmation process — would trench upon the president’s inherent right, as the head of an independent and equal branch of the federal government, to seek advice and counsel where he sees fit. […]

Historically, presidents have turned to special advisers. However much the czars may drive the policymaking process at the White House, they cannot — despite their grandiose (and frankly ridiculous) appellation — determine what that policy will be.

Right. The powers of “czars” over “broad swaths of policy” is not “unknown” — it’s practically non-existent.

Carol Browner, for example, is the director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy. Some have decided to call her the “Energy and Environment Czar,” whatever that means. Browner, in reality, is a top advisor to the president on environmental policy, but her power rests in her ability to influence her boss and officials — her office cannot make, shape, or dictate policy. Browner has no regulatory and/or legal authority.

This is true of practically all “czars.” The exceptions — notwithstanding the difficulty of knowing who counts as a “czar” and who doesn’t, since the title doesn’t literally exist — are congressionally created offices, led by officials whose powers, again, are not “unknown,” but rather, dictated by statute.

In effect, we’re dealing with a “controversy” over the president assembling a team of specialized-but-powerless policy advisors. If we were to rank the manufactured outrages of the last eight months, this would have to be among the dumbest.