This column originally appeared on Townhall.com on June 15, 2009.
Last week President Obama appointed yet another “czar” with massive government power, answering only to him. Even before this latest appointment, the top-ranking Democrat in the Senate wrote President Obama a letter saying that these czars are unconstitutional. President Obama’s “czar strategy” is an unprecedented power grab centralizing authority in the White House, outside congressional oversight and in violation of the Constitution.
As of last week, Czar Kenneth Feinberg has the authority to set the pay scale for executives at any company receiving government money (and how many aren’t, these days?). Czar Feinberg has the power to say that someone’s pay is excessive, and to make companies cut that pay until the czar is pleased.
Congress did not give Czar Feinberg this authority. For that matter, Congress has not authorized any of the czars that President Barack Obama has created. Over the past thirty years presidents have each had one or two czars for various issues, and once the number went as high as five. But now, by some counts President Obama has created sixteen czars, and there may be more on the way. Each of these has enormous government power, and answers only to the president.
Ever since this practice of appointing czars began years ago, it has always been considered possible that they are all unconstitutional. But it never built to a critical mass to elicit a court fight. These czars were few and far between, and rarely did anything that seriously ruffled any feathers. But President Obama has taken this to an unprecedented level, to the point where these appointments are dangerous to our constitutional regime.
This has become too much for the longest-serving senator in U.S. history to stomach. Democratic Senator Robert Byrd is the president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate. Even though Senate rules vest most powers in the Senate majority leader, the president pro tempore is a constitutional officer, and third in line to the U.S. presidency (after the vice president and the Speaker of the House). This office is held by a Democrat, who has been serving in the Senate since before Barack Obama was even born.
Senator Byrd wrote a letter to President Obama in February, criticizing the president’s strategy of creating czars to manage important areas of national policy. Senator Byrd said that these appointments violate both the constitutional system of checks and balances and the constitutional separation of powers, and is a clear attempt to evade congressional oversight. (Didn’t this White House promise unprecedented transparency?)
And Senator Byrd is exactly correct. The Constitution commands that government officers with significant authority (called “principal officers”) are nominated by the president but then are subject to a confirmation vote by the U.S. Senate. And principal officers include not only cabinet-level department heads, but go five levels deep in executive appointments, to include assistant secretaries and deputy undersecretaries.
Inferior officers are appointed either by the president, cabinet-level officers, or the courts. But even then, the Constitution specifies that only Congress can authorize the making of such appointments. For these inferior officers, only Congress can create their offices, and also specify who appoints them. And such officers are still answerable to Congress. They are subject to subpoena to testify before Congress, and Congress holds the power of the purse by making annual appropriations for their division or program.
White House officials, by contrast, cannot be compelled to appear before Congress and testify. They are alter-egos of the president himself, and as an agent of the Executive Office of the President they are entirely removed from Congress, and not answerable to Congress in any way. That was why during the Bush administration White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten, Senior Advisor Karl Rove, and Counsel Harriet Miers could not be compelled to testify to Congress when President Bush invoked executive privilege (a battle they may well have won if they pressed their case all the way to the Supreme Court). Senior presidential aides advise the president alone, and the separation of powers forbids congressional interference in that relationship.
But that’s the problem with these czars. The president can have any advisors he wants, people who privately advise him or meet with others on his behalf, but have little or no actual authority to exert government power on anyone. These czars, however, are directly dictating policy, impacting millions of lives in the way that few assistant secretaries or deputy undersecretaries do.
The Founding Fathers specifically wrote the Constitution in a way to deny such absolute power to emanate from one person. That was why they required that no principal officers could exercise any power unless the U.S. Senate decided to confirm them. That was also why they specified that even for inferior officers only Congress could create their positions and could still require them to answer to Congress. The Founding Fathers were specifically blocking the type of centralized power that President Obama is currently exerting.
Fortunately, there is a remedy. Any person on the receiving end of an order from any of these czars has standing to challenge their constitutionality in court. Any person whose pay is deemed excessive by Kenneth Feinberg, or affected by any other czar, could file a federal suit asserting that the order is an unconstitutional exercise of government power, and have a court both invalidate the order and hold that the position itself doesn’t legally exist. Then everyone could just ignore these czars, because they would simply be private citizens, without the authority to order any of us to tie our shoes.
Let the lawsuits begin.