White House to Keep Obama’s ‘Czars’ from Testifying Before Congress

October 22, 2009 - 9:12 PM
White House Counsel Greg Craig won't allow any of the administration's 18 new "czars" to testify before Congress, angering the ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security Committee.

White House Counsel Greg Craig (L) talks with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder as they leave the White House National Conference on Gang Violence Prevention and Crime Control August 24, 2009 in Washington, D.C. (AP photo)

(CNSNews.com) – The White House is not going to allow the president’s newly created “czars” to testify before Congress.
 
White House Counsel Greg Craig has indicated that he will refuse to allow any of the 18 new “czar” positions created by President Obama to testify before Congress, according to Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
 
Collins revealed during a committee hearing Thursday that she had spoken with Craig, who had earlier sent a letter on behalf of the president, and that Craig told her persoanlly that Congress would not get a chance to ask fundamental questions of the czars about their roles and responsibilities.
 
“Indeed, yesterday when I was talking to Greg Craig, the president’s legal counsel, he made it very clear that the White House would prohibit any of these officials with significant policy responsibility from coming to testify before us if they are located within the Executive Office of the President,” Collins said in her written opening statement.
 
Former Homeland Security “czar” Tom Ridge told CNSNews.com he disagreed with the White House counsel’s decision to bar all of the czars from testifying – but he “understood” it.
 
“I disagree with that, although I do think that presidents are entitled to appoint advisors,” Ridge told CNSNews.com.
 
Ridge, whose post was created in 2001 and would be elevated in 2003 to Cabinet level -- as the first Secretary of Homeland Security -- testified at the Thursday hearing, which was held to examine the constitutionality of Obama’s expanded use of “czars” to serve as policy advisors and inter-departmental policy coordinators.
 
In September, Collins and five Republican colleagues – Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.); Christopher Bond (R-Mo.); Pat Roberts (R-Kan.); Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and Robert Bennett (R-Utah) -- sent a letter to the president expressing their “growing concern about the proliferation of ‘czars’” in his administration, which they said “raise(s) serious issues of accountability, transparency, and oversight.”
 
While not all of the czar positions were problematic, the letter identified 18 new positions created by Obama that had not been reviewed by the Senate nor subjected to any kind of oversight or scrutiny.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), vice chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, said at a Wednesday hearing with some of President Barack Obama's cabinet that she worried that the delays in getting H1N1 flu vaccines to Americans would mean more people will get ill from the virus. (CNSNews.com/Penny Starr)

The list that Collins sought information about included: 
 
-- Energy and Environment Czar Carol Browner (whose official title is Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change)
 
-- Health Czar Nancy Ann DeParle (Counselor to the President and Director of the White House Office of Health Reform)
 
-- International Climate Czar Todd Stern (Special Envoy for Climate Change)

-- Guantanamo Closure Czar Daniel Fried (Special Envoy to Oversee the Closure of the Detention Center at Guantanamo Bay)
 
-- Urban Affairs Czar Adolfo Carrion Jr. (White House Director of Urban Affairs); 
 
-- Pay Czar Kenneth Feinberg (Special Master on Executive Pay)
 
-- Afghanistan Czar Richard Holbrooke (Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan)
 
-- Auto Recovery Czar Ed Montgomery (Director of Recovery for Auto Communities and Workers)
 
-- Car Czar (Manufacturing Policy) Ron Bloom (Counselor to the Secretary of the Treasury)
 
-- Domestic Violence Czar Lynn Rosenthal (White House Advisor on Violence Against Women)
 
-- Economic Czar Paul Volcker (Chairman of the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board)
 
-- Senior Director for Information Sharing Policy Mike Resnick
 
-- WMD Policy Czar Gary Samore (White House Coordinator for Weapons of Mass Destruction, Security and Arms Control)
 
-- Great Lakes Czar Cameron Davis (Special advisor to the U.S. EPA overseeing its Great Lakes restoration plan)
 
-- Central Region Czar Dennis Ross
 
-- Border Czar Alan Bersin (Special Representative for Border Affairs and Assistant Secretary of State for International Affairs)
 
Two of the positions – the Green Jobs Czar and the Cybersecurity Czar -- are unfilled. Van Jones, who was first appointed to the Green Jobs post, resigned recently under fire.
 
The letter asked the president to describe the roles of each czar, explain the vetting process the White House used, and whether each of them would “agree to any reasonable request to appear before, or provide information to, Congress.”
 
In response, Craig sent a letter, dated Oct. 16, in which he provided information on only four of the 18 and denied the “czars” were a problem.
 
“We recognize that it is theoretically possible that a president could create new positions that inhibit transparency or undermine congressional oversight,” Craig wrote. “That is simply not the case, however, in the current administration.”
 
The White House counsel argued that the positions are protected by executive privilege, since they serve as advisors to the president.
 
At Thursday’s hearing, Collins called the Senate’s inability to oversee positions that might make substantive policy changes “an affront” to the Founding Fathers.
 
“They drafted a Constitution, the framework for our representative democracy,” she said. “Their work established a system of government with three separate branches -- a government whose leaders were to be accountable to the people through a carefully constructed system of checks and balances.”
 
Collins added: “The responsibility of Congress to oversee the executive branch is fundamental to our constitutional system.”
 
“The problem for me is there is a big difference between the traditional staff of the president and these ‘czar’ positions which have significant policy responsibilities,” Collins said.
 
Ridge, who testified that the question of whether czars must report their activities to Congress was a complex debate best left to constitutional scholars, told CNSNews.com that he “understood” the claims of both Congress and the White House.
 
“I think there’s a natural tendency predictable within any president’s office for his general counsel to protect his widest possible range of prerogatives, and at some point in time, perhaps in negotiation with the legislative branch, that would be narrowed,” Ridge said.  
 
Ridge had told the committee that as Homeland Security “czar” he was not allowed to testify.
 
“It was at the instruction of my president that I would not testify; typically and historically assistants to the president did not do so . . . but many in Congress took exception to this,” he said.
 
Ridge explained that once he took on a significant policy role in 2003, helping to craft the new Department of Homeland Security, his role changed.
 
“President Bush decided I should testify about those plans. And I did.”

Ironically, in 2003, it was Senate Democrats who led the efforts to try to force Ridge to testify before the Homeland Security Committee and the Appropriations Committee.