Monday, April 18, 2011

Czars and the Presidential Branch

Adam Serwer has a good post up over at the Plum Line today asking whether Barack Obama is being hypocritical by using a signing statement to object to a Congressionally-imposed ban on four "czars." Serwer's answer -- sort, of, but it's the House's fault -- is okay as far as it goes, although it's worth pointing out that presidents do have another option: they could veto the bill. Granted, in this case it would have shut down the government over something purely symbolic (the specific czars prohibited are ones that do not now exist), but presidents do have that option.

The important thing to get here, in order to understand what is at stake, is the distinction between what the president does within the Executive Office of the President -- what John Hart has called the "Presidential Branch" of government -- and what happens in the regular agencies and departments, the Executive Branch proper.

On the one hand, Congress essentially has no business intruding into how the president gathers information and coordinates tasks within the presidency. They have every right to insist on input, however, into what happens in the Executive Branch. That's why I mostly disagree with those who want fewer Executive Branch positions confirmed by the Senate (although I have no problem with minor reforms at the margins); in the system of separated branches sharing powers, we should want a Congressional buy-in on nominees. Without that, either the president or the bureaucracy gain too much influence.

And yet: if presidents attempt to circumvent the functioning of the Executive Branch by carrying out policy within the White House, well, then Congress absolutely should step in and attempt to prevent that.

My strong impression, however, is that Barack Obama is using "czars" the good way, for coordinating policy, and not the bad way, for avoiding the proper departments and agencies that are supposed to carry out that policy (and which are constrained by both Congressional supervision and civil service rules). If that's what's actually happening (and again, I'm aware of no other evidence), then no president should allow Congress to interfere. Doing it by signing statement isn't as good as doing it by veto, but Serwer isn't quite right about the core problem here: the problem here isn't so much the difficulty in moving exec branch appointments through the Senate as it is the necessity of coordinating complex policies across various departments and agencies, and the White House would need to do that no matter how quickly presidential appointments were approved.

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