Two years after he dramatically expanded the scope of so-called policy czars, President Obama this year quietly scrapped some of the most controversial posts, tamping down what had been a simmering constitutional fight with Congress.
Thanks to what the White House says is a reorganization, czars no longer oversee health care or climate change policy, though less-visible officials such as “cybersecurity czar” and “Gulf Coast claims czar,” among others, are still on the job.
But even as Capitol Hill’s objections have been overshadowed by other fights between the executive and legislative branches over the nation’s borrowing limit and the NATO-led operation in Libya, that doesn’t mean congressional scrutiny of executive branch czars has vanished.
Last month, the Senate fell 13 votes short on an amendment to eliminate the salaries of White House policy czars and thwart any attempts by Mr. Obama to appoint more without the chamber’s consent.
Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican and the amendment’s sponsor, said the measure was essential to ensure constitutional accountability. Opponents dismissed it as a partisan attempt to undermine the president’s authority to organize his own staff.
Analysts say it’s not surprising that concerns about White House czars persist, even after Mr. Obama’s April reshuffling of top staff positions through executive order.
“I think it’s legitimate to be concerned about it, because you don’t always know what these people are doing — you don’t know if they’re coordinating or directing,” said James P. Pfiffner, a George Mason University public policy professor who has testified before Congress on the issue.
Complicating the discussion is the lack of a universal definition of “czar.” Mr. Pfiffner defines czars as members of the White House staff who coordinate policy that involves more than one executive branch department or agency but stop short of exercising authority that a Senate-confirmed Cabinet secretary would have.
Some critics of the practice rely on a more expansive definition that includes officials who were confirmed by the Senate, making a reliable number hard to determine.
Talk show personality Glenn Beck one time said he counted 32, but analysts dismissed that tally as unreliable.
The White House has described such concerns as misguided. It pointed out that nine officials cited by Mr. Beck in 2009 — including the “regulatory czar” and “technology czar” — were confirmed by the Senate. At least a dozen of the posts, such as “faith-based czar” and “AIDS czar,” existed during the George W. Bush administration.
Asked about the recent Senate vote, an administration official referred to statements about the consolidation of several czar positions under the White House Domestic Policy Council.
“This was much more from our vantage point about housekeeping than about any response to gripes on the Hill,” the official said.
Tensions between Capitol Hill and the White House about the use of czars has spanned several administrations and both major political parties.
“Every time a czar is appointed who resists testifying before Congress and is therefore unaccountable to the public, Congress’ ability to carry out its constitutional duties of executive branch oversight are impeded,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman, chairman of the Senate panel that oversees government affairs.
The Connecticut independent, who caucuses with the Democrats, said lawmakers “must constantly strive for a balance that satisfies the legitimate demands of both branches.”
Mr. Lieberman, who has held hearings on czar accountability, nevertheless said the Vitter amendment was overly broad.
Also opposing the amendment was Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat. In a floor speech, he called the proposal “a poison pill designed to handcuff the president’s ability to assemble a team of top-flight advisers and aides.”
“Now is the time to move forward. … It is not the time or place to relitigate old and, frankly, silly political battles about so-called czars,” Mr. Schumer said of the underlying legislation.
The measure to streamline judicial nominations eventually passed.
Although Mr. Obama is not alone in his generous use of policy czars, some specialists argue that his reliance has been unprecedented in size and scope.
“Obama has more czars than any past president, hands down,” said Mark J. Rozell, a George Mason University professor who is co-authoring a book on White House czars. He argues that czars violate the spirit of the Constitution’s separation of powers.
“Many of them make policy, regulatory and spending decisions, but they are not confirmed, and they are not subject to testimony before Congress,” Mr. Rozell said. “The president’s critics are right to challenge the use of czars for these reasons, regardless of party ID.”
Russ Feingold and Robert C. Byrd were among Senate Democrats who raised constitutional questions, but the czar issue has been a particular flash point among Republicans.
Those critics seized on missteps by some of the higher-profile czars, such as the former “green jobs czar” Van Jones, whose ties to the Sept. 11 “truther” movement led to his resignation, and former “climate czar” Carol M. Browner’s previous association with an international socialist group.
More recently, congressional Republicans have asked “car czar” turned “manufacturing czar” Ron Bloom to clarify remarks he made to an oversight committee about the government’s auto industry bailout.
Mr. Bloom had denied telling colleagues that he did it “all for the unions,” as his predecessor claimed in a book.
Although Mr. Obama has eliminated some of the more contentious posts, he continues to defend his prerogative to appoint czars. In April, lawmakers attached to a budget bill a provision to strip federal funds for four czars — three of whom already had left their posts. The president said in a signing statement that he would ignore the language.