Too Many Czars

The point of a czar — in the White House, if not the Kremlin — is to give one person the power to coordinate activities among a number of federal departments and offices, to achieve one overarching purpose. For a few priorities that cross jurisdictional boundaries, it’s sometimes useful to have one person with the clout to override senior officials to achieve the goal.

But what if you like the concept of an issues ‘czar’ so much that you fall in love with government by czar? It seems the Obama administration is about to find out:

When a president wants to signal that an issue really matters, there is nothing like a czar. President-elect Barack Obama is making clear that many issues matter to him…

On Monday, Mr. Obama will name former Environmental Protection Agency chief Carol Browner as a White House energy czar, along with other officials to head the Energy Department and EPA. Over the weekend, he announced New York City housing commissioner Shaun Donovan as his secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and he is also planning to name an urban-affairs czar to work out of the White House, likely Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion.

He has already named an economic czar, former Federal Reserve Board chairman Paul Volcker, to look at big-picture economic issues — while he also has a Council of Economic Advisers, a National Economic Council and a large Treasury Department right next door.

He has made former Sen. Tom Daschle a health czar of sorts, in addition to making him secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. Congress came close to creating a car czar, and even though that legislation died, the idea could return. And public interest groups are lobbying for a consumer czar.

But if you’re going to have a czar for every issue under the sun, what purpose do the Cabinet secretaries serve — other than to do the bidding of the czars? History has shown that the secretaries and other senior officials resent the diminution of authority:

If a czar appears to be dictating policy rather than coordinating it, cabinet secretaries may resent it, said Andrew Card, longtime chief of staff to President George W. Bush. “It will I think have a tendency to cause cabinet members to feel as if they’re subordinate,” Mr. Card says.

Jay Hakes, a historian of U.S. energy policy, said he thinks Ms. Browner is ideally suited for the energy position, but notes the potential for fallout, having studied the administrations of Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter, who all had energy “czars” of one kind or another. “A lot of cabinet secretaries end up getting frustrated because aides at the White House wind up telling them what to do,” he said.

That was certainly the case for Donna Shalala, HHS secretary under Mr. Clinton, who was on the sidelines during the 1993-94 health-care reform debate. “It obviously didn’t work,” she said.

There are several possible reasons for appointing czars. The first is that the agency structure prevents the president from effectively executing policy to achieve a goal. In this case, the appointment of a czar is a signal that government is not working properly. When you appoint 6 — as Obama seems likely to do — it is a sign of a systemic failure. After all, if the agency structure is so flawed that you must reduce the authority of most of the Cabinet, in order to deliver on a wide range of priorities, you really ought to consider overhauling the whole structure. Perhaps cabinet secretaries have outlived their usefulness, and ought to see their roles reduced in favor of officials who handle issues, and not agencies. Maybe the president ought to cease convening cabinet meetings, and simply pow-wow with the czars.

A second motivation might be to associate potentially unpopular policies with officials seen both as experts, and as detached from the administration. Thus when the energy czar recommends tripling the gas tax, President Obama might argue that this was an impartial recommendation from an expert working at arm’s length from the administration.

The last reason for appointing a czar is that you feel pressure to act on an issue about which you don’t particularly care, and you decide that appointing a czar is easier than doing something. That may well be what Obama is doing here. After all, Obama clearly intends to offer serious proposals on health care, tax policy, and an economic stimulus (including massive public works spending). Each of these will have a dramatic effect on urban centers. Do you think Obama really wants his urban affairs czar on center stage, explaining how great these reforms will be for New York City?

If nothing else, the presence of so many chiefs is almost certain to guarantee more hurt feelings when officials inevitably conclude that they have lost the president’s ear, in favor of some other official. So let the first round of betting on resignations begin.