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Senate Holds Hearing on the Legality of Presidential 'Czars'

The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, chaired by Democrat Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, held a hearing Tuesday, October 6, focused on "Examining the History and Legality of Executive Branch 'Czars." The hearing was called to address increasing concerns from the lack of Congressional oversight over the unprecedented number of special policy advisors appointed by the Obama administration.

The Obama administration's 'Czar' appointments made headlines throughout the summer. The resignation of 'Green Jobs Czar' Van Jones after exposure of his radical ties, along with the recent exposure of 'Safe Schools Czar' Kevin Jennings' controversial past statements regarding an underaged boy's relations with an older man have left Congress and the public concerned with the need for Congressional oversight of such powerful executive appointments. As Chairman Feingold noted in his opening statement, "it's not surprising that some Americans feel uncomfortable about supposedly all-powerful officials taking over areas of the government." To this effect, Ranking Member Tom Coburn (R-OK) noted that transparency is needed to "reestablish confidence" in the government.

Witnesses at the hearing included: T.J Halstead, Deputy Assistant Director of the Congressional Research Service; John C. Harrison and Tuan Samohan, law professors from the University of Virginia and Villanova University; Bradley H. Patterson, Jr, Author of To Serve a President (2008); and Matthew Spaulding, Director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies. Notably absent was any witness from the White House, despite an invitation from Senator Feingold. In response, the Senator noted that,

"The White House seems to want to fight the attacks against it for having too many 'czars' on a political level rather than a substantive level. I don't think that's the right approach. If there are good answers to the questions that have been raised, why not give them instead of attacking the motives or good faith of those who have raised questions?"

The subcommittee probed the group of expert witnesses regarding the constitutional limits on the involvement of presidential advisors, not subject to Senate consent, in establishing public policy. Witnesses defended the President's right to advisors, but cited the well-publicized National Endowment of the Arts' conference call asking artists to support the President as an incident that brings into question managerial issues with presidential advisors. In light of the NEA conference calls, it is imperative that Congress investigate the extent to which presidential advisors wield inappropriate influence over normal departmental issues.

Concerns were also raised with the July negotiations between auto industry leaders and 'Climate Czar' Carol Browner (in which she told industry executives to "put nothing in writing.") When an unconfirmed 'czar' is negotiating in situations seemingly appropriate for an existing statutory officer, it raises concerns that executive authority may be dodging traditional constitutional requirements. As witness Matthew Spaulding notes in the case of czar Browner's negotiations. "In addition to seeming to be beyond congressional legislative intent, it also seems to circumvent the authority of the EPA administrator." Under today's massive government bureaucracy, just who is holding the real reigns of authority with which to create policy is a baffling issue.

Citizens should be concerned that Congress itself is delegating away too much authority to the Executive Branch (through programs like "TARP", to cite just one example). As recent events demonstrate, Americans are right to question whether Czars accountable only to the President are tilting the balance of government toward a precariously unaccountable Presidency.



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