Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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July 30, 2009

CANTOR'S CZAR PROBLEM.... During the Bush/Cheney years, the White House created new czars for almost every conceivable policy challenge. In the span of about six years, Rove's White House oversaw the creation of a "food safety czar," a "cybersecurity czar," a "regulatory czar," an "AIDS czar," a "manufacturing czar," an "intelligence czar," a "bird-flu czar," and a "Katrina czar." It was such a common strategy for Bush, Rove, and the gang, that it quickly became the butt of jokes. Newsweek satirist Andy Borowitz suggested in 2007 that the White House needed a "lying czar" to "oversee all distortions and misrepresentations."

House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) never seemed especially concerned about czars before, but he, like much of the GOP establishment, seems awfully worked up about the issue now. Consider Cantor's Washington Post op-ed today:

By appointing a virtual army of "czars" -- each wholly unaccountable to Congress yet tasked with spearheading major policy efforts for the White House -- in his first six months, the president has embarked on an end-run around the legislative branch of historic proportions.

To be sure, the appointment of a few special officers to play a constructive role in a given administration is nothing new. What is new is the elevation of so many czars, with so much authority on endless policy fronts. Vesting such broad authority in the hands of people not subjected to Senate confirmation and congressional oversight poses a grave threat to our system of checks and balances.

What's curious about this is how demonstrably wrong it is. These aren't off-the-cuff comments Cantor made in an interview; this is an argument written for publication, presumably subjected to some kind of fact-checking process.

And yet, Cantor's argument just isn't true. He points to "at least 32 active czars," which he insists are "unaccountable to Congress" and were "not subjected to Senate confirmation." Specifically, Cantor complains about a "TARP czar," a "technology czar," and the "government performance czar" -- all of whom, in our reality, were vetted by Congress and subjected to Senate confirmation. One of Cantor's 32 was actually a position created by Bush, and another by Clinton.

Moreover, some of these "czars" only deserve the title in the most colloquial sense. In the State Department, for example, the administration has an official who works full time on shaping a policy on the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. This hardly sounds outrageous, but Cantor has labeled the official a "Guantanamo closure czar." Obama, like all recent presidents, has deputy national security adviser for counter-terrorism. A ha, Cantor says, this is a "terrorism czar" who is part of "a virtual army."

What's more, some of these "czars" are new, but only because they're working in response to new efforts and/or challenges. Previous administrations didn't need a "TARP czar" before, because TARP didn't exist. The "stimulus accountability czar" wasn't needed before there was a stimulus. The "car czar" wasn't needed before the collapse of the American auto industry. These are temporary gigs, not a new, permanent layer of bureaucracy.

I realize Cantor is easily confused. I can also appreciate Cantor's reflexive desire to attack the president relentlessly, without regard for honesty or reality. And while there's a legitimate issue to consider when it comes to a White House reliance on "czars" -- it's created tension between Congresses and White Houses for generations -- Cantor's op-ed is really quite foolish.

Steve Benen 4:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (15)

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Maybe Cantor's piece was fact-checked by whoever does George Will's columns.

Posted by: Pontifex on July 30, 2009 at 4:33 PM | PERMALINK

"Cantor's op-ed is really quite foolish."

Par for the course with the Washington Post.

Posted by: Chris on July 30, 2009 at 4:41 PM | PERMALINK

David Rothkopf at Foreign Policy: Cantor plagiarizes my work -->

"I'm not sure what bugs me more-that Congressman Eric Cantor's Washington Post op-ed today "Obama's 32 Czars" plagiarizes a piece I wrote months ago or that it was a bozo like Cantor who felt compelled to plagiarize me."

"But Cantor's piece crossed a line. Not only did he rehash an idea that was first broached in my April 16th post "It's official: Obama creates more czars than the Romanov's" but he did something worse, he stole the punch line. Lift an idea from one of my pieces and I feel influential. Zei gesund, I say, which is Yiddish for "It's ok, I know that in the policy community imitation is often the sincerest form of thinking." But snatch a joke and you've crossed a line."


Posted by: Umath on July 30, 2009 at 4:42 PM | PERMALINK

What's with all the BOLD type?

Posted by: Bonnie on July 30, 2009 at 4:46 PM | PERMALINK

...presumably subjected to some kind of fact-checking process.

Why would you presume that?

Posted by: e henry thripshaw on July 30, 2009 at 4:48 PM | PERMALINK

The reason there are more "czars" is because the meaning of the nickname has gradually expanded and become less precise. It was originally applied to someone who was intended to coordinate the actions of diverse government agencies in relation to a specific policy goal - the drug and energy czars were the best known.

More recently it has been applied to pretty much anybody who is recruited to perform a specific task, irregardless of any bureaucratic coordination function.

If you expand the definition, of course you will expand the number of "czars."

Posted by: Virginia on July 30, 2009 at 4:50 PM | PERMALINK

Cantor could not have written that piece. It had complete sentences in it....completely wrong, but complete nonetheless.

Maybe Cantor's problem with the multiplicity of czars is that Bush only had one actual czar and he oversaw EVERYTHING (cue video of Cheney maniacally rubbing his hands together).

Assassination squad czar
Drill baby drill czar
Fear czar
Money laundering czar
Earmark czar
Lying czar
CIA agent czar
Terrorist czar
War profiteer czar.....

Posted by: GreyGuy on July 30, 2009 at 4:53 PM | PERMALINK

To be fair, Cantor didn't arrive at his thesis entirely on his own, by (incompetently) assessing the evidence. He was trying to back-engineer a reasoned argument for a claim - a throw-away quip, really - that's been making the rounds on rightwing talk radio for months. If he'd managed to pull it off, it would have been an inspiring case of memic upward mobility from the further precincts of the lunatic demimonde to the august pages of the Washington Post. And if there were any reasoned argument to be made, he'd be as likely as any current leader of the party to find it. But he couldn't.

There's some sort of lesson in this.

Posted by: K on July 30, 2009 at 5:07 PM | PERMALINK

Given the number of nominations Republicans have put on hold for one absurd reason after another, it's a bit comforting to consider that there's a workaround of sorts.

Posted by: zhak on July 30, 2009 at 5:09 PM | PERMALINK

Game, set, match Benen. Sunlight and insecticide - kills cockroaches, er, lying Redouchelicans like Cantor, dead.

Posted by: Conrads Ghost on July 30, 2009 at 5:22 PM | PERMALINK
By appointing a virtual army of "czars" . . . in his first six months, the president has embarked on an end-run around the legislative branch of historic proportions.
That's rich. Where were Cantor's complaints when Dumbya was doing his end-runs around the legislative branch?

(To paraphrase Rachel Samstat, the Nora Ephron character in her roman à clef Heartburn, I've always wanted an appropriate opportunity to say, "That's rich.")

Posted by: navamske on July 30, 2009 at 5:36 PM | PERMALINK

What I wonder is why Cantor, the supposedly brilliant rising star of the GOP, would waste an opportunity to claim space on the Post editorial page by complaining about czars. Is this really an issue that anyone cares about? Besides, I thought we all agreed that Obama was taking us back to Nazi Germany, not Imperial Russia.

Posted by: KenS on July 30, 2009 at 5:59 PM | PERMALINK

And who could possibly forget the appointment of Laura Bush in 2005 as the "anti-gang" czar.

Posted by: Dana S on July 30, 2009 at 7:51 PM | PERMALINK

I didn't even bother scanning the piece, but the title seemed to imply that all these czars are making it impossible for Congress to conduct oversight over the executive branch.

If the Republicans had shown the slightest inclination to do so over the eight years Bush was president this might be less ironic.

Posted by: Lance on July 31, 2009 at 7:41 AM | PERMALINK

Cantor's whines are not meant to be factual. They are just manna for the ever-shrinking republikkkan base.

Posted by: Observer in SC on July 31, 2009 at 3:27 PM | PERMALINK
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