I always used to wonder what it meant to have White House czar of this and a czar of that. I used to think, “Cool…we’re a democracy with not just one czar, but many czars. Amazing nobody is in an uproar over this!” And, now, I am even more amazed at the lack of uproar. The LA Times had an article this morning regarding President Obama’s inflated use of czars; apparently, he’s appointing czars left and right, perhaps more enthusiastically than any other president. OK, so maybe, since President Obama is doing it, it’s not such a bad thing. Maybe it’s one of those Hopey-Changey things that we so lovingly voted for.
Except that the first President to appoint someone in the capacity of czar was President Richard Nixon:
President Nixon may have named the first “czar” with his appointment of William E. Simon to handle the 1970s energy crisis.
Now, you know that whenever Nixon’s name is brought up, the policy is going to smell a bit fishy. If he did it, then you kinda want to steer clear of doing anything that remotely looks the same. It’s just one of those great truths of American political philosophy: Nixon’s name is used as a deterrent, as a red flag. The fact that they are not even sure if he was the first to do so (indicated by the “may have”) is an even bigger indicator that they brought up his name for a reason, and it is not merely to give us historical trivia.
So, what is a White House czarship all about? Apparently, it’s a way for the White House to appoint someone without Congressional oversight to a policy-making position. One example cited is that of Health and Human Services. This week, President Obama nominated Kathleen Sebelius, Governor of Kansas, as Secretary of HHS. At the same time, he appointed Nancy-Anne DeParle as health czar. For Sebelius to get her appointment, she will need to jump through a few hoops, namely testifying before the Senate at confirmation hearings to demonstrate her knowledge, experience, and open herself up to questions. DeParle, on the other hand, gets to skip off to work immediately, without anyone to question her credentials, let alone her opinions.
And when the White House spokesman doesn’t yet know why we need to have two heads for virtually every department, then you know there is no reason for us to just say, “Oh, they know what they are doing, let them have at it in peace.” This is what Robert Gibbs had to say:
The confusion about competing roles played by czars and their Cabinet counterparts was on display Monday as White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs tried to explain how authority would be divided between DeParle and Sebelius as they steer health reform through Congress.
At first, he declared that DeParle “will be in charge.” Then he acknowledged a role for Sebelius and others.
“I think obviously this is something that spans across many platforms, not unlike, say, something like energy independence, that a lot of people that work in this building and in different agencies will be involved in,” he said, pledging to get back to reporters with details about how the health policy team will work.
This is all very interesting to me, and makes me wonder if our “long national nightmare” really is over. Or have we merely boarded a more subtle version of the Nightmare Bus?