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.
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