Medieval emperors in Eastern Europe were known as czars. Now, 1,000 years later in the United States, the term is a metaphor for certain White House officials who are given authority over a specific policy area and are not confirmed by the Senate or subject to congressional oversight.
The use of these positions has a long history and has increased substantially in the modern era. The authority to create such positions is the subject of much debate, especially as the number of czars has vastly expanded over the two most recent presidential administrations.
Mason public policy professor Mark Rozell has studied executive branch power extensively throughout his career and takes a look at this controversial topic in his latest book, The President’s Czars: Undermining Congress and the Constitution, co-authored with Mitchel A. Sollenberger of the University of Michigan–Dearborn.
Under what authority does the president have the ability to create these positions?
Czars are a constitutional aberration. There is no official title of executive branch “czar” in the U.S. Constitution, federal laws, or government manuals. Czars may in theory exist to merely provide advice to presidents, but the reality is that many of these officers have gone well beyond merely advising and often supervised statutory programs, administered a policy area, controlled appropriated funds, or regulated industries. White House and executive branch aides who exercise decision-making authority that has the force of law and are not confirmed by the Senate violate the U.S. Constitution.
Should the public be worried that these czars have no democratic accountability?
Many czars have made significant policy, regulatory, and budgetary decisions while largely operating independently of the normal constraints built into our constitutional system. In a system of government that seeks to prevent tyranny by ensuring each branch can check the others, there are dangers in allowing executive branch officials with far-reaching powers to be isolated from legislative oversight and controls.
Are the czars effective in ways that Senate-confirmed positions are not?
The utility of the czar position is that it somewhat helps the president to manage some of his complex duties. Nonetheless, that an office has utility for our system does not make it constitutional.
What has been controversial about the use of czars?
President Obama has appointed more czars than any president since FDR. Some of them, such as [pay czar] Kenneth Feinberg [overseeing executive compensation for companies that received government bailout funds and managing the BP oil spill payout], have exercised some of the most formidable powers of any government official.
Any odd or unusual uses of the czar title?
There are some oddly named positions such as the healthy foods czar (Sam Kass) and the Asian carp czar (John Goss).
Czars have been used by Presidents Bush and Obama to enact policies that Congress can’t or won’t. Is this a failure of our current political climate or an overreach by the Executive Branch?
There has been an enormous amount of controversy over Obama’s czars, much of it obscured by partisan rancor. Many positions labeled as czars by Obama’s opponents are clearly misnamed because they are Senate-confirmed and subject to the normal constraints of our system of separated powers. But overall, the president has overreached his authority in the use of many unconfirmed czar positions, as did his predecessor George W. Bush. Czars are mostly a contemporary feature of an expanding executive power, where presidents increasingly try to govern without constraints.
Why was this the right time to release a book on this subject?
My co-author and I had planned to write a book refuting the unitary executive theory. We first got into the topic of czars and never looked back to the original plan. Fascinating subject; no one had written a book on it before. We had the chance to do something original here.
How long have you been looking at the subject of czars?
Both of us have written over substantial periods of time on issues of executive authority and separation of powers. But the origin of this particular project was barely a year before we had to deliver a completed manuscript in late 2011. The topical nature of the whole issue gave us a lot of motivation to move the project more quickly than the typical academic book.
—Jim Greif, MPA ’07