Feingold's Czar Hearing
I'm a big Russ Feingold fan - that should come as no surprise to any longtime reader. And at a certain level, I do understand his hearing today about executive branch czars. While George W. Bush had more czars than Barack Obama, it is true that the numbers of them have expanded over the years, and we should wonder if the executive branch is using these policy coordinator positions to avoid legislative oversight. Feingold correctly explains that "czars" has become a catch-all term, and some who have fallen under that title in the media are filling positions created by statute, or hold positions inside a federal agency and report to an cabinet officlal. All of the so-called "czars" in these categories have either been confirmed by the Senate or routinely testify before Congress. He's primarily interested in the portfolios housed inside the White House instead of those more readily available to the process of checks and balances.
“I am most interested in the third category of positions, and I think we are talking about fewer than 10 people, in part because we know the least about these positions. These officials are housed within the White House itself. Three weeks ago, I wrote to the President and requested more information about these positions, such as the Director of the White House Office of Health Reform and the Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change. The response to that letter finally came yesterday, and I will put the response in the record and plan to question our witnesses about it.
“The White House decided not to accept my invitation to send a witness to this hearing to explain its position on the constitutional issues we will address today. That’s unfortunate. It’s also a bit ironic since one of the concerns that has been raised about these officials is that they will thwart congressional oversight of the Executive Branch.
“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?
Michael Scherer calls this a plea for a more civil discourse. But there are several points to make:
• The forces on the right who have elevated the "czar" issue aren't interested in a civil debate. They just want to collect scalps, and kick up some nefarious scent of "scandal" inside the White House. They could care less about the Constitutional issues, as evidenced by the fact that fewer than 10 of the 32 czars on that infamous Fox News "list" could possibly, under any reading, have any Constitutional issue to speak of, and probably not then. Feingold is giving these concerns far too much weight.
• The White House has appeared to give "good answers to the questions that have been raised" with a thorough listing of all the so-called "czars" and the functions they serve and how none of them raise Constitutional issues, or are outside the bounds of oversight, given the possibility for testimony and FOIA requests for documents.
• "Czars" are a media term, not a term regularly used by any White House other than to assure some attentiveness to the particular issue once raised by the media. Feingold should have the Presidents of the news agencies answer questions on his panel about why they call any advisor with a narrow policy focus a "czar."
• At the same time, to the extent that the White House has retrenched and set up offices without the same kind of advise and consent from the Senate, it's because the Senate confirmation process has gotten completely out of control. Republicans routinely put holds on qualified nominees for no discernible reason attached to that individual, but to pick other fights on unrelated subjects. It's no surprise that a President who needs to get things done would try to leapfrog, at least in some small way, that fruitless battle over confirmation which has become nothing but a sideshow. Feingold would do well to ask his fellow Senators if freezing out a nominee for the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel, for example, over concerns about her views on abortion, which have absolutely nothing to do with the position, represents a good use of advise and consent. It's debilitating to the country to have the Senate become a giant bottleneck.
This is an election year upcoming for Feingold, and I assume he's being coy here and playing to same cluster of independents in Wisconsin by having this hearing. In reality, it's hard to see how these positions raise any Constitutional flags. And it's hard to see how this hearing really helped matters.