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Byrd to Obama: Enough Already With the 'Czars'

By Ben Pershing

Does the Obama White House have too many "czars?" No less an authority than Sen. Robert Byrd thinks so, and the West Virginia Democrat has told the president as much.

In a letter he sent to Obama on Monday, Byrd expressed his displeasure at the increasing number of policy positions being created in the White House, registering his fear that those officials would usurp the authority of Cabinet secretaries. "Too often, I have seen these lines of authority and responsibility become tangled and blurred, sometimes purposely, to shield information and to obscure the decision-making process," wrote Byrd, the self-described "constitutional conscience of the Senate."

Byrd specifically noted the creation of three new White House bodies -- the offices of Health Reform, Urban Affairs Policy, and Energy and Climate Change Policy -- and complained that "the rapid and easy accumulation of power by White House staff can threaten the Constitutional system of checks and balances. At the worst, White House staff have taken direction and control of programmatic areas that are the statutory responsibility of Senate-confirmed officials."

As the foremost defender of Senate prerogatives, Byrd is concerned that these new "czars" will assume vast policymaking authority without being answerable to Congress, whereas Cabinet secretaries, who must be confirmed by the Senate, can be summoned to testify before the chamber. They are also subject to stringent oversight, both through authorizing committees and the appropriations process, which Byrd has helped steer for decades. White House staffers, Byrd points out, "rarely testify before congressional committees and often shield the information and decision-making process behind the assertion of executive privilege."

At least one dispute over such an assertion is ongoing, as Karl Rove is engaged in a battle with the House Judiciary Committee on whether he should appear before the panel to testify on the firings of U.S. attorneys by the Bush administration. Obama has not yet decided whether his administration will back his predecessor's claim that Rove is protected by executive privilege.

Byrd asked Obama to limit White House aides' authority over "any Senate-confirmed department or agency head," to ensure that only Obama himself will authorize assertions of executive privilege, "and that the lines of authority and responsibility in the administration be transparent and open to the American public."

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Capitol Briefing will update this item when it does.

By Ben Pershing  |  February 25, 2009; 12:05 PM ET
Categories:  Branch vs. Branch  
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Comments

The Borgen Project has some good info on the cost of addressing global poverty.

$30 billion: Annual shortfall to end world hunger.
$550 billion: U.S. Defense budget

Posted by: atsegga | February 25, 2009 4:57 PM | Report abuse

Senator Byrd never ceases to amaze and impress me.
Obama would do well to heed his advise and not expand the responsibility of governing beyond the reach of those governed.
Good thinking, old man.

Posted by: stosp | February 25, 2009 8:01 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps congress needs to actually do some real work for the economy. One Republican congressman just said on the floor today: "Get rid of the inheritance tax..... will benefit the small business owners...."

Granted that the inheritance tax is unfairly high in comparison to other forms of taxes, but using economy as an excuse to push for tax cut is low. The tax code needs to be rewritten and please do so comprehensively.

Posted by: GOP_ya | February 25, 2009 8:50 PM | Report abuse

What Sen. Byrd is saying...is that he doesnt want an energy czar or any one else to control the "coal Czars" of WV.

Posted by: edgewatervince | February 26, 2009 8:58 AM | Report abuse

Thank you Senator Byrd.
Cabinet Secretarys are the route to go for all these programs. By creating White House units to override them, the Obama Administration is taking a page out of the Bush playbook. If you are going to be transparent, then the Cabinet is the place for all this information. The Constitution does call for Congressional oversight.
Addressing Executive Privilege: ONLY the President has the right to exercise it, and the ONLY time he can is while he is in office. Even then, I am not sure that the constitution allows it. It is just another of those items we have allowed to obscure what is really going on in Washington. How can Congress oversee, if every Dick, Carl, and Scooter, or their replacements can block them from the vital information they need to do their jobs.
Mr. Obama has said he will be transparent. Will his actions match his words?

Posted by: Tawodi | February 26, 2009 11:01 AM | Report abuse

I agree with Sen Byrd. Altho he is widely recognized as the earmark specialist for W VA, he is also wise and principled. These 'czars' are not only costly, as they operate beyond the purview of the cabinet sec'y, they tend to get haughty and self-important. Why can't a cabinet sec'y report in to the Pres whenever the Pres asks? Isn't that why the sec'ys are there? I know they operate fiefdoms, but they should be reminded that they are to do something besides push paper and name aides.Why have someone in charge of health policy in addition to the HHS Sec'y? Doesn't the Pres trust the cabinet appointee he has selected????

Posted by: mb1957 | February 26, 2009 12:21 PM | Report abuse

I have a lot of respect for Sen. Byrd for his years of service to the Senare and representing his State of West Virginia.
However, this man is now 92 years of age and is recognized of having his mental
capabilities questioned. He has just been replaced as the Chairman of one committee
and it is highly unlikely he could author
such a letter.

Posted by: dick-x | February 27, 2009 10:13 AM | Report abuse

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