WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama isn't skirting the U.S. Constitution or abusing his authority by appointing so-called "czars," or policy coordinators, to oversee certain issues or problems, a Senate panel was told Tuesday.
Conservative talk show hosts and some mostly Republican lawmakers have accused Obama of embarking on an unprecedented czar-appointment spree in a bid to circumvent Congress' authority over top executive appointments, to dodge congressional oversight and to consolidate power in the White House.
Cabinet officers must be confirmed by the Senate and must report back to Congress frequently as lawmakers exercise constitutional oversight of the executive branch. But White House staff appointees -- including 'czars' -- aren't subject to Senate confirmation and often decline to testify before Congress, citing "executive privilege" to confine their advice to their boss, the president.
However, a panel of experts testifying before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution said that the number of such czars has been rising since the Nixon administration and that most czars aren't the all-powerful figures that critics portray them to be.
"There does not appear to be any fundamental constitutional or legal basis upon which a president's reliance upon high-level, political advisers may be questioned or prohibited," T.J. Halstead, deputy assistant director of the non-partisan Congressional Research Service's American Law Division, said in written testimony. "While the number of such advisers has grown substantially over the past few decades, that growth, even coupled with the arguably concordant increase in their influence, does not render their service presumptively unconstitutional."
Tuesday's hearing didn't satisfy Obama critics.
Shortly after it began, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, issued a statement saying that he's "troubled by this administration's pattern of appointing so-called executive branch czars to important policymaking roles, an obvious attempt to bypass the Senate's constitutional 'advice and consent' role."
Sessions said that Obama has named more than 30 czars since taking office, but that number's in dispute. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, in a letter last week to Obama signed by five other Republicans, put the number at 18.
The list includes Nancy-Ann DeParle, who coordinates health care issues; Carol Browner, who works on energy and environmental issues; Lynn Rosenthal, who deals with domestic violence and sexual assault issues; and Adolfo Carrion Jr., who works on urban issues.
Collins' letter said the czars "may be undermining the constitutional oversight responsibilities of Congress." Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., chairman of the Constitution subcommittee, sent a letter to Obama echoing Collins' thoughts.
Feingold expressed annoyance that the White House didn't make anyone available to testify Tuesday.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs shrugged off the criticism.
"I don't know if Senator Feingold is calling Franklin Roosevelt to be a witness," he said. "I would assume that Congress and Senator Feingold have more weighty topics to grapple with than something like this."
Matthew Spalding, an analyst for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative policy-research center, said that Congress itself is partly to blame for the proliferation of czars because it has abdicated some of its responsibilities as a separate branch of government.
"Congress has developed the habit of delegating vast amounts of authority to the executive branch to address problems and after the fact looks to manage the exercise of that authority, as opposed to writing clear and detailed laws to be executed by the president," Spalding said in written testimony.
"The Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) ... is a perfect example," Spalding wrote. "Unbounded delegations allowed the Secretary of the Treasury to spend up to $700 billion at will to purchase 'troubled' assets of any financial institution. Lo and behold, the United States is now a majority owner of General Motors and there is a Car Czar."
Halstead said that if lawmakers want their concerns about czars addressed, they could do it through traditional means -- by summoning them to testify.
"A robust oversight regime focusing on specific, substantive executive action taken in areas which such advisers reportedly have political influence would appear to be a potentially effective locus of congressional attention," he said.
Congress also retains the "power of the purse" and could restrict appropriations to any office run by a czar that displeased lawmakers.
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