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2009-09-17 digital edition

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2009-09-17 / General Stories

Czars: Pulling the Curtain Back on Washington's New Power Class

By U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison

The framers of the Constitution knew the founding document of our democracy must be both the anchor of liberty and the blueprint for its preservation. Wisely, they provided a balance of powers to ensure no individual and no single arm of government could ever wield the forces of unchecked authority against the American people.

Nearly 250 years later, we are seeing these critical lines of separation being obscured by a new power class of federal officials. A few of them have formal titles, but most of them are simply known as "czars," and they are holding unknown levels of power over broad swaths of policy. Under the Obama administration, we have an unprecedented 32 czar posts, including a "car czar," a "pay czar," and an "information czar." There are also czars assigned to some of the broadest and most consequential topics in policy, including health care, terrorism, economics, and key regions of the world.

So what do these czars do? Do they advise the President? Or do they impose the administration's agenda on the heads of federal agencies and offices who have been vetted and confirmed by Senate? Unfortunately - and in direct contravention of the intentions of the framers of the Constitution - virtually no one can say with certainty what these individuals do, or what limits are placed on their authority. We don't know if they are influencing or implementing policy. We don't know if they possess philosophical views or political affiliations that are inappropriate or overreaching in the context of their work.

This is precisely the kind of ambiguity the framers sought to prevent. Article One of the Constitution tasks the legislative branch with establishing federal agencies, defining what they do, determining who leads them, and overseeing their operations. Article Two requires the President to seek the advice and consent of Congress when appointing certain officials to posts of consequence. Thus, authority is shared between government branches, guaranteeing the American people transparency and accountability.

As the senior Republican on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, I oversee legislation and agencies that cover everything from trade, technology, and transit to consumer protection and commercial regulation. Up to ten of the 32 czars functionally fall under my committee's jurisdiction. Yet, neither I nor the chairman have clear authority to compel these czars to appear before the committee and report what they are doing. And prior to assuming their duties, the administration only presented two of these officials for our consideration. For the others, we have had no opportunity to probe their credentials.

We recently saw the kinds of dangerous details that can slip through when a powerful federal official isn't put through the Senate confirmation process. "Green jobs czar" Van Jones carried to his post troublesome past activities, including endorsement of fringe theories about 9/11 and ties to a socialist group. The Senate confirmation process would typically provide an appropriate forum for identifying these types of issues, discussing them, and allowing for public input. Mr. Jones's case highlighted the lack of accountability that is becoming commonplace under the Obama administration.

While Mr. Jones rightly resigned, there are dozens of other administration czars about whom we still know very little. It is Congress' duty to know who is serving at the highest levels of government, what they are doing, and what qualifications or complications they bring to the job. It is also our responsibility to make this information known to the people who have elected us to serve and protect them. This is how we ensure accountability.

The deployment of this many czars sets a dangerous precedent that undermines the Constitution's guarantee of separated powers. It must be stopped. President Obama should submit each of his many policy czars to the Senate so that we can review their qualifications, their roles, and the limits on their authority. To deliver anything less is to deny the American public the accountability and transparency the Constitution guarantees.

Kay Bailey Hutchison is the senior U.S. senator from Texas.

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