In June, at the Radio-Television Correspondents Dinner, President Obama joked about a new TV show called "Dancing with the Czars."
The presidential change in diction -- from joking about it to almost pulling a muscle to avoid using the term, in just one Summer -- morphed into White House combativeness today.
Asked today about questions raised by a liberal Democratic senator about its myriad "czars," the White House went after several Republican lawmakers as hypocritical for having supported new czars themselves.
The pushback came after Gibbs was asked about a letter sent to the White House by Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., (read it HERE) who as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on the Constitution, asked for the White House to "disclose as much information as you can about these policy advisors and 'czars,'" which he defined as those in the White House and other executive positions to whom the President had decided to "assign significant policy-making responsibilities.
The liberal lawmaker asked the White House to identify the czars' "roles and responsibilities, and provide the judgment(s) of your legal advisors as to whether and how these positions are consistent with the Appointments Clause" in Article II, section 2 of the Constitution, which states that the President "shall nominate, and by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, shall appoint ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, judges of the Supreme Court, and all other officers of the United States."
Gibbs today said he hadn't seen Feingold's letter, and instead responded to a letter from Republican senators raising some of the same issues.
"I'm struck by a little of the politics in this," Gibbs noted that Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, "was pushing for a Y2K czar that he didn't think was powerful enough" while Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., "call(ed) for a manufacturing czar."
Gibbs' point was that the Bush administration also had czars, with few Republicans objecting to the positions then. There's no way to say who had more czars, Obama or Bush, since the term is completely subjective and used as a shorthand, more often than not by the media. Karl Rove was once called Bush's Domestic Policy Czar, for instance.
Gibbs noted that Randall Tobias, the deputy secretary of state known "in the Bush administration as the Abstinence Czar was on the DC Madam's list."
Asked Gibbs: "Now, did that violate the Constitution or simply offend our sensibilities?"
"I think what the American people would like every branch of government to do is get about dealing with the problems that real people have each and every day rather than playing political games back and forth, day after day, and not solving or addressing their problems," Gibbs said.
Feingold in his letter called the Appointments Clause "an important part of the constitutional scheme of separation of powers, empowering the Senate to weigh in on the appropriateness of significant appointments and assisting in its oversight of the Executive Branch."
Gibbs today said "I think the American people hold the President accountable. That's what we would expect."
Bennett's office told the Salt Lake Tribune that the Y2K Czar was a "temporary position for a temporary situation" and that "Bennett asked for the position only after learning no Cabinet member had responsibility for preventing computer problems."
Alexander issued a statement saying that "Eighteen of the administration’s 32 czars hold new positions that did not exist in previous administrations and were not authorized by law. These czars are unconfirmed by the Senate, unavailable for questioning, and unaccountable to the American people through their elected representatives."
Separately, White House communications director Anita Dunn wrote a lengthy "Reality Check" post on the White House blog noting that while some members of Congress "have asked serious questions around the makeup of the White House staff, the bulk of the noise you hear began first with partisan commentators, suggesting that this is somehow a new and sinister development that threatens our democracy. This is, of course, ridiculous."
Dunn noted that "the job title 'czar' doesn’t exist in the Obama Administration."
That may be true, but President Obama has used the term "Border Czar" to refer to Alan Bersin, the Department of Homeland Security Assistant Secretary for International Affairs and Special Representative for Border Affairs.
Introducing his new Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy in July, President Obama said to Gil Kerlikowske, "I just want you to know, as well as our new director of our office of -- I always forget the full name of this -- I call it the Drug Czar, but -- "
"I'm fine with that," Kerlikowske said.
One would hope so. The term "Drug Czar" -- is credited to then-Senator, now Vice President, Joe Biden, in 1982.
Dunn went on to note that many of the officials "cited by conservative commentators have been confirmed by the Senate. Many hold policy jobs that have existed in previous Administrations." Nine of the "32 Czars" cited by Republican lawmakers and conservative commentators were confirmed by the Senate, including Kerlikowske. Others hold positions created by previous Republican presidents, such as the Faith-Based Czar and the Intelligence Czar, created under President George W. Bush.
"There've been so many czars over last 50 years, and they've all been failures," New York University government professor Paul Light told the Wall Street Journal last year. "Nobody takes them seriously anymore. ... We only create them because departments don't work or don't talk to each other. It's a symbolic gesture of the priority assigned to an issue, and I emphasize the word symbolic. When in doubt, create a czar."
Feingold will hold hearings on the issue in a few weeks; he is not the first Democrat to have raised the question of whether appointing individuals who don't have to face Senate confirmation to powerful Executive Branch posts flies in the face of President Obama's promises of greater accountability.
In February, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-WV, wrote that “As presidential assistants and advisers, these White House staffers are not accountable for their actions to the Congress, to Cabinet officials and to virtually anyone but the president. They rarely testify before congressional committees and often shield the information and decision-making process behind the assertion of executive privilege. In too many instances, White House staff have been allowed to inhibit openness and transparency and reduce accountability.”
More recently, Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., introduced legislation that would basically take away the president's power to appoint czars,
"These guys don't get vetted," Kingston told the Washington Post. "They have staff and offices and immense responsibility. All that needs to come before Congress."