An Ebola czar? Not so fast

The news that healthcare workers in the United States have contracted Ebola has put pressure on the White House to appoint a policy czar to coordinate the federal response to a possible outbreak of the deadly virus. Initially, a White House spokesperson rejected calls by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and other lawmakers for the creation of such a czar. As calls for a czar escalated, the president yesterday reversed and said that he is open to making such an appointment.

An administration official earlier had noted that a reason for not naming an Ebola czar was the president’s mindfulness of creating “another layer of bureaucracy.” That was the correct position to have taken. Indeed, the problems with appointing a czar go deeper than that. There is little evidence that czars improve government efficiency or are better at task management and policy execution than existing departments and agencies. Czars create inefficiencies due not only to the added bureaucracy but also overlapping lines of authority with existing departments and agencies.

{mosads}Further, some presidents, including Barack Obama, have created czars without statutory authority backing those positions. The lack of statutory grounding means that czars exercise authority vested in other officials, which creates legal and extra-legal complications. Not to mention the absence of accountability czars have to Congress or the public because they are presidential creations and not confirmed by the Senate. Presidents have anointed czars as presidential “advisers”, thus attempting to shield these officials from testifying on the Hill, even while some of them have exercised substantial policy, spending, and regulatory powers.

The lack of a policy czar does not mean that the federal government is incapable of organizing an effective response to Ebola; nor does it mean that no one can be put in charge of a possible crisis later on. Nonetheless, it is clear that the federal government has real systemic design problems that various scholars, lawmakers, and even presidential staff members have reported.

In the latest news articles covering the federal government’s Ebola response activities, any number of entities or officials are named, including: Department of Homeland Security, Surgeon General, White House Homeland Security Advisor, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institutes of Health, Department of Health and Human Services, the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance at the U.S. Agency for International Development, among others.

Even without fully knowing the responsibilities, powers, or limitations of each entity or official responding to the Ebola outbreak, one can appreciate the overarching complexity of our current government structure and the natural administrative confusion that it can bring. That confusion is occurring now in the media, public, and even with elected and un-elected officials in the federal government.

Understanding that there are systemic structural and personnel challenges within the federal government is nothing new. Several presidential commissions charged with developing plans to reform the operations of the executive branch have arrived at similar conclusions about the ineffectiveness of the departments and agencies. Back in the 1960s one such presidential commission created by President Lyndon Johnson recommended the consolidation of the then existing 12 departments (now 15) into four super-departments in order to maximize efficiencies and promote greater coordination of government activities by secretaries. In a sense the commission was calling for statutorily created “czars”. Of course there were additional details and nuances to the plan, but the general conclusion was a good one: the demands to create more and more governmental structures and personnel eventually reduce the possibility of developing solutions to the policy problems and issues that the federal government hopes to address. Streamlining government structures, rather than adding a czar and his or her many new officers every time a crisis or challenging policy problem pops up, would make sense.

The only immediate benefit of naming an Ebola czar would be political, as it would signal to the media and public that the White House takes the issue so seriously that the president would select a single person for the job of preventing an outbreak in the United States. The calls for new czars in response to crises and other policy problems, and the fact that czars are more about optics than substance, say much about our ineffectual political and governing systems.

Sollenberger is associate provost at University of Michigan-Dearborn and Rozell is acting dean of the School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs at George Mason University. They are co-authors of the book “The President’s Czars: Undermining Congress and the Constitution” (University Press of Kansas).

Tags Barack Obama John McCain

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