Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), who for decades has battled White House power and championed congressional clout, is questioning President Obama's appointment of "czars" to oversee key policy areas, including energy and climate.
"The rapid and easy accumulation of power by White House staff can threaten the Constitutional system of checks and balances," Byrd wrote in a letter to Obama. "At the worst, White House staff have taken direction and control of programmatic areas that are the statutory responsibility of Senate-confirmed officials."
Byrd specifically cited the creation of a new White House Office of Energy and Climate Change, which is headed by Carol Browner. He also noted new offices for health reform and urban affairs policy and the appointment of White House staff to coordinate on technology and management performance policies.
He also listed numerous examples from the administrations of Presidents Richard Nixon and George W. Bush of officials who directed policy as White House assistants.
"Too often, I have seen these lines of authority and responsibility become tangled and blurred, sometimes purposely, to shield information and to obscure the decision-making process," Byrd wrote.
Byrd, who carries a copy of the Constitution with him and often cites it in floor speeches, said the czars are not accountable to Congress or to Cabinet officials and rarely testify before congressional committees. He said they often "shield the information and decision-making process behind the assertion of executive privilege" and too often "have been allowed to inhibit openness and transparency, and reduce accountability."
He asked Obama to require that assertions of executive privilege be made only by the president or with his specific approval and that White House senior personnel be limited for exercising authority over any person, program or funding within the responsibility of a Senate-confirmed department head.
Byrd also asked that the president be responsible for resolving any disagreement between a Senate-confirmed agency head and White House staff and that the lines of authority in the administration "be transparent and open to the American public."
A White House spokesman did not return calls for comment by deadline.
'A bit like having a bazooka'
Thomas Mann, a congressional expert at the Brookings Institution, said Byrd raised a "perfectly legitimate concern."
"And it is important that a Democratic senator took this step with a Democratic president," Mann said. "Byrd always places institutional interests over partisan and ideological concerns."
Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute said Obama clearly has a theory of how to govern and implement policy that is leading him to use policy czars in his team.
"It's an open question as to whether he can make it work," he said. "Generally speaking, other presidents have not been able to make it work."
Ornstein cited Bush's naming of Tom Ridge as homeland security czar early in his administration. Ridge had great access to the president but no line authority over the many agencies involved and no budget authority, so his ability to influence policy ended up being extremely limited, he said.
"He always had the opportunity to go to the president... [but] that's a bit like having a bazooka when you're a cop on the street trying to maintain order," Ornstein said. "Sometimes you need a billy club."
Obama's czars also will have to deal with whether they can work with Cabinet officers and whether the president can step in when needed, he added.
"He's a different kind of president, and it's possible he can succeed where others have not," Ornstein said. "But it's uncharted territory."
Byrd's concerns have been shared by other lawmakers. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) briefly blocked the confirmation of U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson over concerns about the new White House energy and climate change office. Barrasso said at the time he was concerned about accountability and wanted to ensure sufficient transparency and oversight, so that Congress will have the ability to get answers from Browner.
Barrasso later allowed the Senate to proceed with a vote on Jackson, saying he had spoken with Browner and that she agreed to meet with him to discuss the issue further.
Obama also had considered picking a "car czar" to oversee massive restructuring at General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC, but instead tapped a handful of Cabinet secretaries and senior economic advisers to take on the task.
Click here to read Byrd's letter.
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