WASHINGTON (CNN) – Congressional hearings called by Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold - one of the leading Democratic critics of executive branch "czars" who do not require Senate confirmation - drew a dismissive shrug from the White House Tuesday.
"I would assume that Congress and Senator Feingold have more weighty topics to grapple with than - than something like this," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters. The White House did not send a witness to Tuesday's hearing.
The administration's absence drew criticism from Feingold, whose hearing examined the history and legality of the positions.
"I called this hearing today because I think this is a serious issue that deserves serious study," Feingold, chairman of the Senate Judiciary constitution subcommittee, said in his opening statement.
Feingold has previously said "there is a serious constitutional issue here..." about whether these appointments are "an end run around" the Constitution's advice and consent process.
Republicans on Capitol Hill and conservative commentators have criticized these czars, saying they hold too much authority and are not accountable. The Bush administration employed a similar number of persons in these type of positions.
White House Counsel Greg Craig said Monday that Craig said concerns about accountability, transparency, and congressional oversight were unwarranted. In a letter to members of Congress posted to Feingold's Senate Web site Tuesday, Craig argued that the advisers do not violate the Constitution's requirement for appointments to receive the advice and consent of the Senate, since they don't exercise independent authority.
"(N)either the purpose nor the effect of these new positions is to supplant or replace existing federal agencies or departments, but rather to help coordinate their efforts and help devise comprehensive solutions to complex problems," he wrote.
For his part, during Tuesday's hearing Feingold said he was not as concerned about those advisers who are reporting to a Cabinet Secretary, since that official is confirmed by the Senate, but is most interested in the fewer than 10 people who work inside the White House itself.
"We know the least about these positions," said Feingold. Those spots are filled by individuals like Nancy-Ann DeParle, who works on health reform, Carol Browner, who handles energy and climate issues as well as those involved in such issues as information sharing, cybersecurity, weapons of mass destruction, urban affairs, green jobs and domestic violence.
"If – and I am not saying this is the case – individuals in the White House are exercising legal authority or binding the executive branch without having been given that power by Congress, that's a problem," said Feingold.
In his letter, Craig said those officials working in the White House either work under the National Security Council or are senior policy advisers with expertise, and none have independent legal authority.
An expert in American law from the Congressional Research Service, T.J. Halstead, told the senators there are no apparent constitutional issues arising from these appointments, although he said "these individuals are exercising significant political influence."
"Even assuming that a substantial constitutional argument could be forwarded against a President's expansive use of advisers, it is unlikely that efforts to curb this presidential practice by means of a judicial or legislative response will be availing," Halstead said, according to his prepared testimony.
GOP critics aren't convinced by those arguments. "If one of these so-called czars exerts statuatory authority when in fact they none...how do you stop that from happening?" asked Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma.
Some of the others filling the role include: Cass Sunstein, an Office of Management and Budget official known as the "regulation czar"; Joshua DuBois, who heads the White House Office of faith-based initiatives; Earl Devaney, who oversees the accountability of the stimulus spending; Ron Bloom, a Treasury Department official charged with helping the auto industrys restructuring; Todd Stern, climate change; Ed Montgomery, director of recovery for auto communities and workers; and Richard Holbrooke, dealing with the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.
– CNN's KD Fabian and Francesca Johnson contributed to this story.