Bennett: Obama has too many czars

Politics » Princeton professor says it's 'something of a made up controversy.'
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President Richard Nixon had an energy czar. President Ronald Reagan named a drug czar. President George W. Bush added a faith czar.

But Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, says he's had it with President Barack Obama skirting congressional oversight by naming new so-called czars to his administration.

Bennett, who is up for re-election next year, joined five Republican senators on Tuesday in asking the president in a letter to explain the role of the 18 czars so far and what power they have in the administration.

"The president's decision to expand the executive branch and bypass Cabinet officers with a group of presidential assistants given the title of 'czars' undermines the Constitution," Bennett said. "I think Congress needs to start asking whether the president's action to create these 'czars,' many of which are not subject to senatorial confirmation, is an attempt to negate Congress's right of oversight."

Of course, there is no one in the Obama administration with the actual title of czar; it's a nickname applied mainly by the news media in place of long, laborious government titles.

But the czars have become a bogeyman of conservative talk radio. Activists were irate at Obama's green jobs czar, Van Jones (his actual title was "special advisor for Green Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation at the White House Council on Environmental Quality") who previously had called House Republicans a swear word and once signed a petition. Jones resigned earlier this month.

The White House on Tuesday pushed back at the criticism of too many czars.

"Hiring smart and qualified people to coordinate between agencies and with the White House is nothing new," said White House spokesman Adam Abrams. "While some may now be applying new labels or engaging in revisionist history, the reality is that every president dating back to Nixon had similar positions in their administrations."

Julian Zelizer, a professor of political science at Princeton, says the term czar -- a throwback to the Russian monarchy - --- evokes an image of a dictator.

"It's something of a made up controversy," said Zelizer. "It's not even clear that [Obama] has more people in these kind of positions than Bush did. It's just trying to feed a general argument that government is too big."

Some conservatives have argued Obama has as many as 40 czars, up from the count of 36 that The Washington Post said Bush had during his two terms.

Bennett, along with GOP Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Pat Roberts of Kansas, Chris Bond of Missouri and Mike Crapo of Idaho, said Obama should ensure that senior U.S. leaders have the "legitimacy" they need.

"If you believe action is needed to address other failures or impediments to successful coordination within the executive branch, we ask that you consult carefully with Congress prior to establishing any additional 'czar' positions or filling any existing vacancies in these positions," the senators wrote.

Zelizer notes that Bennett and the other senators may be trying to curry favor with the right flank, especially after tens of thousands of people flooded the National Mall last weekend to protest big government and Obama's policies.

"The Washington march just showed there is a base that's angry, energized and sympathetic to that rhetoric and I think some politicians are responding and using this kind of rhetoric that can be helpful for voters in the election," Zelizer said.