Everything You Need To Know About Czars

Driving today's fearful discussion about czars this morning is a Politico article that purports to demonstrate 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." It's a fine example of what Politico does best: provide a distillation of political scuttlebutt and press releases into a story. However, it is missing a crucial ingredient: something I like to call "knowing what the hell you are talking about."

Fortunately, over at the Washington Independent, Dave Weigel has rounded up the basics on the thirty-some-odd people who you'll hear referred to as czars, and for my part, any discussion I'll have about czars will begin with me asking, "Have you read Dave's piece on this matter?" Point blank: failure to have done so is a non-starter. School starts today, so let's attempt to acquire some knowledge!

The fitful, paranoid discussions I hear this morning about czars boil down to the idea that President Barack Obama has erected this governing framework of special advisers who take office without requiring Congressional approval. The problem is that over half the people named as czars are actually held over in offices from the prior administration or are in fact subject to congressional approval. As Weigel points out, this includes some of the big names you've heard about:

Take a look at Politico's list of 31 "czars," which shrinks to 30 without Van Jones. Republican strategists like Ed Rollins have used that "31″ number to allege that there's a problem here. But perhaps the most controversial people labeled "czars" by [Glenn] Beck and by reporters have gone through Senate confirmations. Cass Sunstein, whom Politico labels the "regulatory czar," is waiting for the end of a Republican filibuster so he can lead the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, an office created in 1980. John Holdren, the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, was confirmed by the Senate, unanimously, six months ago. But none of that seems to matter to their critics. Michelle Malkin, whom, again, Politico credited for making this an issue, relentlessly refers to Holdren as the "Science Czar" as if it was his actual title.

Have you heard of David J. Hayes? Politico identified him as the "California Water Czar." He's actually better known as the Deputy Secretary of the Interior. Alan Bersin is termed the "Border Czar" -- it's more accurate to refer to him as the Department of Homeland Security Assistant Secretary for International Affairs and Special Representative for Border Affairs. George Mitchell is ridiculously identified by Politico as the "Mideast Peace Czar." He is actually a diplomat, the special envoy to the Middle East. I'd never even thought to refer to him by any other name! Same with Richard Holbrooke, who maintains a similar diplomatic portfolio as the White House's Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and who Politico calls a "czar." It's as if Politico just showed up in Washington, yesterday! This is the sort of thing that should cause Politico's advertisers to wonder if they really are the Beltway insiders they claim to be.

Once Weigel eliminates all the so-called "czars" who are actually people "who were confirmed by the Senate at one point or given previously-existing jobs," that list of czars is sliced in half. But even so, someone should require czar critics to at least attempt to make some sense:

Now, President Obama has created several new offices and institutions: the Presidential Task Force on the Auto Industry, the President's Economic Recovery Board, White House Office of Health Reform, and the Recovery Act Transparency and Accountability Board, to name some. But when Pence says Congress must "examine the background and responsibilities of these individuals" and "determine the constitutionality," what is he suggesting? Should Herb Allison and John Holdren, who were confirmed by the Senate, resign and go through hearings again, just to be safe? Does he wonder whether the job of Director of National Intelligence is constitutional? That would be a shame, because Pence voted for the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, which created the DNI.

It's all a bit unhinged, especially when you consider the fact that the term "czar" exists in our political culture solely as shorthand for the media to discuss individuals with complex portfolios and unwieldy titles. Now, the same media is pretending that "czars" represent something ornate and untoward. It's pretty insulting, as a media consumer, when the press literally chooses to act as if they do not know what they are talking about.

At any rate, Weigel's work should earn him several bookings on cable news where a calm and rational explanation of this subject matter is sorely needed.

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