WASHINGTON — The longest-serving U.S. senator in history, who's one of the nation's top authorities on congressional power, is challenging President Barack Obama for naming White House policy czars who can operate without the same legislative scrutiny as Cabinet officials.
Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., said that the practice may conflict with Obama's commitment to openness and transparency. Byrd, 91, who has served a half-century in the Senate, laid out his critique in a two-page letter made public Wednesday, a day after sending it to the White House.
Byrd highlighted Obama's creation of non-cabinet White House posts to oversee health reform, urban affairs, climate change and technology and management. He recalled how Presidents Richard Nixon and George W. Bush consolidated power in their White House staffs to ill effect.
Presidential assistants and advisers inside the White House "are not accountable for their actions to Congress, to cabinet officials and to virtually anyone but the president," Byrd wrote. Unlike cabinet secretaries, who must answer to the Senate that confirms them as the Constitution dictates, White House staff aides rarely agree to testify before Congress and often hide behind executive privilege claims.
"In too many instances, White House staff have been allowed to inhibit openness and transparency and reduce accountability," Byrd wrote.
Byrd asked Obama to mitigate these risks by committing to assert executive privilege claims only rarely; to keep his White House staff from making funding, personnel or program decisions that go around Senate-confirmed department or agency heads; and to maintain transparency and openness as he has promised.
An administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak on this issue, said: "The czars were put in place to help coordinate the policy process. For issues like climate change and healthcare the input of multiple agencies is essential to the decision-making process and our goal is to move forward with our policy agenda as efficiently as possible."
His comment didn't really address Byrd's concerns, however, which are shared by many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. They see a decades-long slide of power to the executive from what the Constitution intended to be a co-equal branch of government.
Many Democrats also are frustrated by Obama's delay in deciding whether to uphold claims of privilege that former Bush advisers including Karl Rove have used in refusing to give public testimony to Congress.
Still, Democrats who control both chambers of Congress seemed reluctant to take sides in a public conflict between the venerable Byrd and a president from their own party who has high public approval ratings.
A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., declined comment when asked about Byrd's letter, and a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., didn't respond to a request for comment.
Mark Rozell, a public policy professor at George Mason University and author of a book on executive privilege, said Byrd's concerns are "absolutely right."
"These aren't people who are going through confirmation hearings; they're not heading departments and agencies over which Congress does direct oversight," Rozell said. "Cabinet secretaries begin to play a lesser role in the system. I think it leads to less accountability in the process.
"The irony is that the president conveys the message that he's all about openness and accountability and undoing the tendencies of the Bush era, while on the other hand he's concentrating power in the White House in a way that reduces accountability."
Congress does have the power to push back, by refusing to support Obama's policies or to appropriate his requests for money. But in the current crisis climate, Rozell said, that's unlikely. Obama's far more popular than is Congress, and, especially in times of crisis, people look to the president as the authority figure.
"I don't see the public giving much cover to Congress to take Obama on like this," he said. "Congress may be absolutely right constitutionally, but the public may not stand for it anyway. The public may just see Congress as meddling where it doesn't belong."
(Steven Thomma contributed to this report.)
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