Czars to the right, czars to the left

Much conservative angst has been expressed of late about a proliferation of federal positions designated as “czars.” These officials are given broad responsibility for a specific area with few obstacles to the exercise of their authority, hence the title, “czar.” There does indeed appear to be a raft of autocratic authorities in a presidential administration only seven months old. But, in fairness, it must be acknowledged that the president is doing nothing unprecedented in establishing these positions, which require no Senate confirmation, for the practice began with Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

According to Wikipedia, FDR offered the country 10 czar positions, filled by 15 people during his 12 years in office. Thereafter, there were only either one or two of them, except for six in Harry Truman’s administration and seven in William Clinton’s. A total of 133 have served.

The biggest increase occurred under the administration of Barack Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, who authorized a full 36 during his eight years. Obama so far has established 32. The latter has at least three years and five months to surpass the former.

What matters have these czars been responsible for? Interestingly, all of Roosevelt’s czars were appointed during the Second World War, dealing with manpower, prices, rubber, censorship and economic stabilization (“the czar of czars”).

Most readers will remember the drug czar first established by Richard Nixon, a position continued by his successors., and an energy czar, which has not. The drug czar has since become subject to Senate confirmation.In fact, other czars have been regularized in that way, while retaining the same broad, largely untrammeled authority. The new automobile czar was appointed by the Secretary of the Treasury alone.

Some of these czars do not survive the administration in which they are brought into being, such as Bush’s for abstinence, bioethics and bird flu. Clinton’s AIDS czar has been continued. Other new czars deal with Iran, the Middle East, technology, urban affairs, weapons proliferation and weatherization.

So criticizing Obama for establishing so many czars is a baseless charge. Fair enough, although like anyone else serving in the government of the United States, they are accountable directly to the president and ultimately to all the citizens.

But it is worth remarking that a new administration that has been so determined to distinguish itself in multiple ways from its predecessor seems to be carrying on with multiple czars. Perhaps there is this distinction, that what it took Bush to do in eight years Obama looks like he will accomplish in eight months.

More generally, the resort to czars is explained by at least two factors. First, as was the case with FDR, wartime demands untrammeled authority if victory is to be obtained, so his czars, which understandably repugnant to republican sensibilities, are sometimes necessary.

But peacetime presents a challenge. Why do need czars then? I submit it is a way of coping with the huge growth in the federal bureaucracy, particularly in New Deal days, when FDR began with an annual budget of $3 billion dollars and a few thousand civilian employees, and grew to tens of billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of civil service workers. (We are leaving out the military personnel here.) Today, of course, it's three trillion dollars and millions of civilian personnel.

Civil service reform was intended to put an end to the abuse of political patronage (known as the “spoils system”) by establishing professional standards and providing protection against capricious employers.

Those familiar with civil service know that it has long since tipped to the other extreme so that it is virtually impossible to fire an incompetent person. The millions who serve see cabinet secretaries and other administrators come and go, but they go on forever.

It is not surprising, and not unforgivable, then, that presidents have appointed czars to get around the bureaucracy in order to accomplish what they intended to when they ran for the office. Still there are concerns. 

Like everything else, we must judge officials and institutions by their results, and we must expect obedience to the U.S. Constitution by czars no less than officials with less restricted authority. Too, we must be mindful of the spirit that informs the choice of these czars, to be sure that they aren’t tempted to ignore the consent of the governed.

After all, we did not fight a revolution, establish a constitution, and fight a civil war and two world wars so that we would be indistinguishable from those despotic regimes of the old world, which also had kaisers, and which like czars, derive from the word Caesar.