The White House has told Congress it will reject calls for many of President Obama’s policy czars to testify before Congress - a decision senators said goes against the president’s promises of transparency and openness and treads on Congress’ constitutional mandate to investigate the administration’s actions.
Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican, said White House counsel Greg Craig told her in a meeting Wednesday that they will not make available any of the czars who work in the White House and don’t have to go through Senate confirmation. She said he was “murky” on whether other czars outside of the White House would be allowed to come before Congress.
Miss Collins said that doesn’t make sense when some of those czars are actually making policy or negotiating on behalf of Mr. Obama.
“I think Congress should be able to call the president’s climate czar, Carol Browner, the energy and environment czar, to ask her about the negotiations she conducted with the automobile industry that led to very significant policy changes with regard to emissions standards,” Miss Collins said at a hearing Thursday that examined the proliferation of czars.
The debate goes to the heart of weighty constitutional issues about separation of powers. The president argues that he should be allowed to have advisers who are free to give him confidential advice without having to fear being called to testify about it. Democrats and Republicans in Congress, though, argue that those in office who actually craft policy should be able to be summoned to testify because they do more than just give the president advice.
At issue are the 18 positions Miss Collins says Mr. Obama has created since he took office. Of those, she says 10 - the White House says eight - are in the executive office and not subject to Freedom of Information Act requests or requests for testimony.
Czar is an informal term given to the positions.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent and chairman of the government affairs committee, asked the White House to provide a witness for Thursday’s hearing but it did not send one.
In a letter last week to Miss Collins, though, Mr. Craig explained that the White House is not trying to circumvent Congress.
“We recognize that it is theoretically possible that a president could create new positions that inhibit transparency or undermine congressional oversight. That is simply not the case, however, in the current administration,” Mr. Craig wrote.
Mr. Craig said the new positions Mr. Obama has created within the White House “are solely advisory in nature” and have no independent authority.
Senators disagreed with that evaluation, pointing to Mrs. Browner and health care czar Nancy-Ann DeParle, who is Mr. Obama’s health care adviser.
“We do happen to have a Cabinet officer with Health and Human Services with whom I have never had a conversation on health care, not because I have any opposition to her but because it’s my perception Nancy-Ann DeParle is calling the shots,” said Sen. Robert F. Bennett, Utah Republican.
Criticism of czars has boiled over after talk-show host Glenn Beck - who senators at the hearing repeatedly referred to as “he who shall not be named” - began a campaign to highlight their proliferation in the Obama administration. But Miss Collins said she’s been looking at czars for months, and she doesn’t have problems with many of the czars Mr. Beck has criticized.
Still, Mr. Craig spent two pages of his four-page letter to Miss Collins critiquing Mr. Beck’s positions.
Legal experts testifying before the Senate panel said Congress needs to be careful not to overreach in reacting. They said options open to lawmakers include writing new laws to restrict advisers’ authority or writing the positions into law as needing Senate confirmation. A White House aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said they are trying to work to accommodate “all reasonable congressional requests for information” and said some White House advisers have given informal briefings to members of Congress in lieu of testimony.
The aide also said some czars are outside the White House itself and they can be called to testify. The aide said five of them have already done so.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat, blasted Republicans for raising the issue and said she took offense at their comparisons between Mr. Obama and President Nixon.
She said Congress should instead be looking at the legality of presidential signing statements to shape how laws are implemented - a tool whose use expanded substantially under President George W. Bush.
Last month, Miss Collins offered an amendment to compel administration officials to testify, but it was ruled not germane to the bill being debate.
Democrats said it went too far because it would have covered all executive branch employees, including the national security adviser and the chief of staff, who have always been recognized as out of bounds.
Miss Collins said the issue shouldn’t be so intractable and that Congress and the White House should be able to agree on a list of people who should be able to testify.
For his part, Mr. Lieberman said he’s still looking for a good solution.
“We both share a desire to do something about this to help Congress uphold our responsibility for oversight, but we understand the balance here as reflected in the Constitution,” he said.