Czar light, czar bright

While the political alarm bells have been clanging from the right over some of the questionable czars appointed by Obama, it is natural the public would commence to vet the czars in instances where the president has skirted past the Senate. “If the Senate isn’t going to vet these czars, then by golly, we will!” seems to be the battle cry, and understandably so.

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However, the objective should not solely be to shine a light on Van Jones, Obama’s “green jobs czar” until he resigned, although it was a positive and necessary move. Kevin Jennings, the Safe and Drug Free Schools czar who has some seriously disturbing statements in his past regarding sexual relations between teenagers and adults in addition to his controversial positions on sexual orientation education for schoolchildren, also needs to go. Perhaps there are more. But the problems with these individuals should mainly serve to underscore the larger, more important point — that without proper vetting and the advise-and-consent role of the United States Senate, disaster lies in wait.

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) recently conducted a hearing in the Judiciary Committee’s Constitution subcommittee in a laudable attempt to address the proliferation of czars in the Obama administration and the extent to which they operate outside the parameters of any sort of congressional oversight, particularly those reporting directly and exclusively to the president. The White House was invited to send a representative to testify at the hearing, but declined the senator’s overture. Feingold’s intent to address what he deems a serious constitutional issue, regardless of the individuals in those czar roles, is precisely how the Senate should proceed from here. Presumably, this exercise would be of value to future administrations, Republican or Democrat.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) also conducted a czar-related hearing in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. In an attempt to help ensure transparency and a more legislatively defined role for czars as part of the system of checks and balances, the committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), has announced plans to introduce legislation to eliminate funding for the czars unless they appear before Congress.

Even if every individual on Obama’s czar list, those under President George W. Bush and previous presidents were absolutely, positively the bee’s knees, the Senate needs to discern that fact and examine the czars’ roles and accountability through oversight. Many czars are granted the authority to develop and implement key policy initiatives, much in the same way Senate-confirmed Cabinet secretaries do. Because many czars are not confirmed by the Senate, there is virtually no oversight of their activities. Therein lies the rub.

When George W. Bush piled up a collection of czars, many in his own party were concerned and there were more than a few raised eyebrows. With Obama already appointing 18 new czars not subject to Senate confirmation, we seem to have encountered the tipping point. The Senate needs to take a close bipartisan look at this trend and be prepared to take action. It is off to a good start, but it can’t end with just the Feingold and Lieberman hearings – especially in light of the Obama White House’s shameful refusal to cooperate with the senators’ request to send an administration representative to testify at the hearings alongside the esteemed experts and academics on the witness list.

With the legislative leadership of moderate Republican Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) and Lieberman, and hopefully with the support of the principled progressive Feingold, the country may well, indeed, benefit from a bipartisan (tripartisan?), balanced, responsible and welcome effort to ensure transparency and a return to a proper advise-and-consent role for the Senate, regardless of which party is in power.

Whether the political heat is turned up, or cools considerably, Congress needs to stay on top of the czar issue. The American people deserve to have confidence that even if they do not agree with the president — any president — on the issues, at least there is proper oversight by a body of their democratically elected officials of those creating government policy that affects us all.

Jacobus, president of Capitol Strategies PR, has managed congressional campaigns, worked on Capitol Hill and is an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management. She appears on MSNBC, CNN and FOX News as a GOP strategist.