Republicans who have spent months criticizing the proliferation of “czars” in the Obama White House have finally landed a major punch.
Over the past few weeks, White House green jobs czar Van Jones has been accused of being a communist, an old lecture video showed him calling Republicans a—holes, and he’s been connected to a Sept. 11 conspiracy group.
With that type of paper trail, Jones would have trouble surviving a Senate confirmation.
But his czar status allowed him to skip this step: Many of the high-level White House policy advisers don’t require Senate confirmation for their posts. And while liberals have hailed Jones as a pioneer in the green jobs movement, critics have labeled him a radical — and he’s become a liability for a White House that doesn’t need another distraction.
On Friday, Republicans began calling for his resignation and asked for a public hearing into how Jones slipped past the White House vetting process. And White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs on Friday avoided addressing the Jones controversy directly, referring reporters back to a Jones statement apologizing for his affiliation with the Sept. 11 "truthers."
The Jones debacle shows how czars — dozens of powerful problem solvers tapped to tackle some of the thorniest problems facing the country — could continue to cause problems for the White House. By some counts, the Obama administration has about 30 czars — a term used as shorthand for long, wonky titles such as Jones’s “Council on Environmental Quality's special adviser for green jobs.”
To be sure, every president in recent history has had his own czars: President George H.W. Bush appointed the first drug czar, President George W. Bush had a homeland security czar and Hillary Clinton promised to create a “poverty czar” if she won the presidency.
But with so many more czars than previous administrations, the Obama White House faces greater potential for controversy. And the Van Jones case has clearly hit a nerve.
His affiliation with a 1990s group called Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement has opened him to accusations that he associated with Communists. And in 2004 he allowed his name to be put on a letter requesting an investigation into whether the Bush administration allowed 9/11 to happen as a “pre-text to war.” Jones said Thursday he never believed in this so-called “Truther” movement, issued an apology for his past remarks, and said in a statement that his involvement with 9/11 conspiracy theories "does not reflect my views now or ever."
Republicans and a handful of Democrats have called on the White House to review and suspend its use of czars. Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) on Friday asked for a Senate hearing on the Jones appointment.
“In the wake of these recent revelations, the president should suspend any further appointments of so-called czars until Congress has an opportunity to examine the background and responsibilities of these individuals and to determine the constitutionality of such appointments,” said Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), Chairman of the House Republican Conference, who called on Jones to resign.
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The czar-attacks have begun to catch fire far beyond the Beltway. In town hall meetings across the country this August, questioners slammed the administration’s advisers, claiming that they allowed the White House to wield unchecked power.
It’s an argument that’s been fed by Republicans in Congress, who see an opening to attack the credibility of the popular administration. In an Arizona town hall meeting last week, Republican Sen. John McCain joked that Obama, “has more czars than the Romanovs” — a laugh line he frequently uses. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich calls the czars, “administrative chaos.”
Conservatives argue that the czars are the administration’s way of pushing a big government agenda - without Congress getting in the way. And each whiff of controversy, they believe, helps them prove their point.
Conservative pundits are on a czar hunt, combing records for politically dangerous statements made by the policy advisers.
Michelle Malkin has manufactured trading cards adorned with images of some of the White House officials. FOX News Channel's Glenn Beck runs a regular segment on his radio show called “know your czars.” Beck and Sean Hannity of Fox News have hammered Jones for weeks about his statements, fueling the controversy surrounding his background.
While czar’s controversial backgrounds can open the White House to attacks, experts also warn that too many czars in the room can lead to internal problems. So much overlapping authority can spark turf wars between Senate-confirmed officials and politically powerful czars, distracting them from the very high-profile issues the advisers are supposed to solve.
“The problem is people don’t know who’s in charge,” said George Mason University professor Jim Pfiffer. “And there’s going to be more tensions because there are more czars.”
The Obama administration goes out of its way to avoid referring to its policy advisers as “czars,” a nickname they say is bestowed by the media — preferring titles like assistant, director, or special master. But even they, occasionally, drop the c-word.
“Our new director of our office of — I always forget the full name of this — I call it the Drug Czar,” Obama said, introducing Gil Kerlikowske at a July roundtable on urban policy. Kerlikowske’s full title is director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Czars are not a new part of White House life: President Lyndon B. Johnson tasked a series of White House advisers to handle various aspects of World War II in the early 1940s. Conservative William Bennett was President George H. W. Bush’s first drug czar, appointed in 1989.
But the number of czars in the Obama administration, say historians, is unprecedented.
“There just seems to be a few more in the Obama administration,” said University of Vermont professor John Burke, an authority on presidential transitions. “And they are using them particularly as a vehicle for their early policy initiatives.”
There’s a bailout czar, a technology czar, a climate czar, an urban czar, and a health care czar. The pay czar is evaluating compensation packages for investment banks. The border czar is working to curb the violence and drug trafficking on the U.S.-Mexico border. The WMD czar is working on non-proliferation issues. The Great Lakes czar is overseeing clean up of the lakes.
Even Obama jokes about his fleet of policy advisers.
“ABC is planning a series called 'Dancing with the Czars,'" he said at the Radio and Television Correspondents' Association dinner in June.
Czars generally lack the huge budgets and staffs of a Cabinet agency. But they have something even more valuable in power-obsessed Washington: the ear and message of the president.
Earlier this year, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) criticized the administration’s use of czars as a power grab by the executive branch.
“The rapid and easy accumulation of power by White House staff can threaten the constitutional system of checks and balances,” wrote Byrd. “At the worst, White House staff have taken direction and control of programmatic areas that are the statutory responsibility of Senate confirmed officials.”
Experts don’t see the lack of congressional oversight as particularly problematic, arguing that czars have limited legal authority that largely restricts them to simply relaying White House wishes.
The lack of real executive and budgetary power, for example, plagued Tom Ridge, who served as homeland security czar during the early years of the George W. Bush administration. Ridge had access to Bush but didn’t have the money or staff to have a strong influence on policy. Eventually he became a Senate-confirmed Cabinet secretary when the Department of Homeland Security was created.