Czar Talk

Is there any substance to the criticism of Obama's "czars"?

Criticism of some political journalism as “stenography” is sometimes misplaced—part of reporting really is writing down the things that people have to say. But, of course, there’s judgment involved in knowing which things and which people. It’s a choice that, in Washington, often boils down to this: who do I quote first—people who know things and who have incentives to be intellectually honest, or politicians?

This tension was on display in coverage of yesterday’s Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing, convened for the purpose of examining whether President Obama’s use of so-called policy “czars” amounted to an improper circumvention of congressional oversight. The issue has been largely driven by Republican politicians and conservative activists determined to clip Obama’s wings and take out a few of his lieutenants. Still, the topic touches on a genuinely interesting separation-of-powers question; the senator who called the hearing—Wisconsin’s Russ Feingold—is known as an independent, serious-minded Democrat; and the hearing was slated to feature testimony by five independent expert witnesses. All things considered, the event presented a reasonably good opportunity to examine whether there’s any substance to the criticisms—as long as reporters quoted the people who know things.

So: is there any substance? Let’s see a few highlights from the testimony. First, from T.J. Halstead of the non-partisan Congressional Research Service:

There does not appear to be any fundamental constitutional or legal basis upon which a president’s reliance upon high-level, political advisers may be questioned or prohibited.

How about University of Virginia law professor John Harrison?

…I do not know of any instance in which anyone on the White House staff has claimed legal authority that he or she did not possess…[P]ractical authority… is not legal authority, and as long as the distinction is rigorously maintained there will be no legal problem.

And what did Bradley Patterson, an old Washington hand whose writings on the White House have been published by Brookings, have to say?

[I]t would be unthinkable that the appointments of any of the personal legislative or committee staff here at the Capital should be approved by the White House. And likewise vice versa.

…The president’s personal staff are independently responsible only to the president—and in the end he is the only “czar” that is. And he is accountable: to the American electorate.

Seems pretty clear, and the sort of thing one might want to include in an article on the hearing, right? Judging from the stories that got written, though, not everyone agrees. Consider the account by ABC News, which carries the headline “Capitol Hill Turns Up the Heat on Criticism of President Obama’s ‘Czars’”—a classic case of putting politics over substance. The brief write-up quotes Feingold, Republican senator Jeff Sessions, Feingold, and Feingold again, before closing with a glib response from White House spokesman Robert Gibbs. Patterson, Harrison, and Halstead? Nary a mention.

The Associated Press write-up takes a similar line, but if anything leans even more heavily on Feingold’s czar-related concerns. Those include his remark that “It’s not good enough to simply say, ‘Well, George Bush did it too’”—a good point, but one that overlooks the fact, brought out in testimony at the hearing, that “czars” have been with us since the early twentieth century, and present in increasing numbers for at least a generation. Against Feingold’s complaints, meanwhile, the AP cites a letter by White House counsel Gregory Craig. One of the witnesses, Patterson, does get a mention right at the end—to make the banal point that “‘czar’ is not an official title.”

The New York Times’s online account is longer, and stronger, than those from ABC and the AP. The write-up lays out how politics have brought the issue to the fore, and, via comments from a Heritage Foundation witness, devotes more time to explaining the trend toward more “czars.” Still, the central themes are the Senate’s continuing focus on the issue and the White House’s strategic response.

As a result, a 2,000-word story actually gives short shrift to the substance of much of the testimony. Readers see not Patterson’s conclusion, but a lengthy anecdote involving the storming of Alcatraz by Indian protestors (which reporter Kate Phillips refers to “a walk down memory lane”). Halstead is quoted for the purposes of re-examining a Bush-era controversy, and Harrison not at all—but Republican Senator Sue Collins gets plenty of space to express her concerns.

Thankfully, there were some reporters who decided that the focus of their stories should be what the people who know things had to say. Take a look at these ledes:

The Wall Street Journal: “Is the Obama administration’s use of policy ‘czars’ unconstitutional? Five experts who testified before Congress today say no.”

Los Angeles Times: “Five constitutional experts testified at a Senate hearing Tuesday that President Obama’s extensive use of policy ‘czars’ is legal — as long as the officials do not overstep their authority.”

McClatchy: “President Barack Obama isn’t skirting the U.S. Constitution or abusing his authority by appointing so-called ‘czars,’ or policy coordinators, to oversee certain issues or problems, a Senate panel was told Tuesday.”

It’s not that these stories neglect political concerns, or political claims—each gives space to both Feingold and a Republican senator. But those criticisms are presented and measured against what the expert witnesses had to say. It’s some good work, on this day, by these reporters. Let’s hope their colleagues take note.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.