Does the country need a coronavirus testing czar? Not really
During the Obama era, conservative critics led by Glenn Beck unleashed a torrent of criticism of the president for his appointments of various White House czars — officials who, without official portfolio were managing programs, overseeing Cabinet departments and even making appropriations decisions. The criticism focused on the president evading normal checks and balances by appointing high-level officials who had not been confirmed by the Senate, or even been through any normal vetting process for their positions. The allegation was that a kind of shadow government was in operation.
Although much of the criticism of the president at that time involved over-the-top conspiracy theories, we agreed with the fundamental point that any White House appointee who had duties comparable to cabinet secretaries, or even in some cases above them, must be subject to the Senate confirmation process. We even wrote a book about the whole controversy in which we hit the former president rather hard on evading normal democratic controls that we considered fundamental to our governing system.
Today, not much has changed, except the conservative voices regarding President Trump’s czars are silent. If such a practice was wrong for a Democratic president, why is it acceptable for a Republican one? The administration’s coronavirus testing czar, Brett Giroir, had been asked to leave his previous employment for reasons that frankly anyone considering to put him in a major administrative role would consider important to know. We all learned about it in news reports, long after his appointment. This kind of information is exactly what a thorough vetting process exists to reveal — a great benefit to presidents whose own reviews of candidates might not be thorough enough to capture troubling past details.
The Trump administration has appointed various czar positions, including a trade czar, opioid czar, deregulation czar and cybersecurity czar; it has also continued some past czar positions such as the long-standing drug czar. The lack of outrage by conservative critics who unloaded on Obama for this practice is oddly matched by calls for more czars by some leading Democrats such as Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) who support the appointments of such officials in crises. Thus, the general silence on an issue that exploded in the previous administration.
Based on our review of the use of czars going back to the Franklin Roosevelt administration, there is little evidence that these positions improve government efficiency or are especially good at managing the complex array of departments, bureaus and offices that need to be coordinated, managed and even directed for the execution of policy goals. Instead, White House czars add a layer of bureaucracy onto policy matters that add to the confusion of overlapping lines of authority with existing departments and agencies. Further, White House czars lack statutory authority to back their positions. The absence of such authority means they cannot compel departments and agencies to either direct or manage funds.
Another concern is public accountability of the position. Since a czar position is not statutorily created, and falls generally under the suite of positions a president can create in the White House Office, the person is considered protected from congressional inquiries through claims of executive privilege or more generalized, sweeping declarations of “separation of powers” concerns for the president and his staff. This is no hypothetical scenario. Presidents have anointed czars as presidential “advisers” for the very purpose of shielding them from testifying on the Hill, even while some of them have exercised substantial budgetary and regulatory control over policy matters that have been granted by law to departments or agencies.
The fact is that presidents do not need White House czars to provide coordination on policy. Any confusion or chaos on policy within an administration is not the result of a czar’s absence, but because of the president and Congress not working well together. It is those two branches of government that are joined by the Constitution and tasked to formulate laws and policy directions.
The only benefit presidents receive from appointing a czar is political, in that it gives the appearance that the administration has an effective coordinator of national policy in a crisis. Symbolic reassurance might have some value, but even that is hard to achieve when the president himself insists on being the daily face of the federal response on television.
Mark J. Rozell is dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. Mitchel A. Sollenberger is associate provost and professor of political science at University of Michigan-Dearborn. They are co-authors of the book “The President’s Czars: Undermining Congress and the Constitution” (University Press of Kansas).
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