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.
Reagan was the first president to use the term "czar" WHY do we need to continue to use this silly name?
Hey, doesn't bother Obama. He's got his Ego Czar to take of things.
This is typical behaviour of this White House. I am a Democrat and am hoping for Obama to be a one term president, the man is an arrogant gasbag with no regard for the American people. In my opinion Obama is the G.W. Bush of the Democratic party.
Its just this kind of attitude that got Nixon in trouble. I wonder if the so-called "mainstream" media will attack like they did then. This president is reminding me more and more of Palpatine in the Star Wars movies.
Let's see, for decades Presidents (both Democrats & Republicans) have used czars. George W. Bush had the most czars of any President. Obama actually kept several of the same czars that W. had.
But – all of a sudden – *now* its a big issue? The problem with Republicans is they don't have even have the slightest suggestion of consistency.
I believe that Bush had more czars and Reagan is the one who started using the term. So how about quit acting like it is a political thing. OOPS! I forgot. Everything is a political thing.
Vote third party.
Where was the investigations when "W" had all his czars?
Feingold is right! Never ever – EVER – give up Diane! :)
To mike syracuse,ny.Obama IS THE EGO CZAR!
So where was all of this criticism when Bush was in office doing the very same thing? Some comments speak of this administration's 'typical' actions and invoke a 'Star Wars' movie to try and draw a point. (there's a dose of reality based invective for you)
Let's base our comments on reality and ask why this was not a question for the 'run-amuck' gang that left our country in it's worst financial crisis EVER. They did what they wanted to when they wanted to and were never called to account by you people that are yodeling like choirboys now.
wow I gotta tell ya the people are gonna get real tired real quick of Gibbs and this dismissive administration . wow its AMAZING how Gibbs replies to some questions. wow
Every one of these individuals has a job and a title. The term czar was invented by the media. These positions are no different than any other, in any other administration. There are many problems in this country that have taken many years to develop. I have no problem with having advisors. It's time for the senate and the rest of congress to pass health care reform and stop the unneccessary nonsense.
Nixon came up with he first "Czar", what's the complaint, that Obama is following established procedure?
This is a non-issue. Where were all of the "anti-czars" in the past? Since these advisors in the White House have no power to enact policy, they do not violate the Constitutional requirement. Yes, they may have considerable influence, so did Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, and Nancy Reagan's astrologer.
The arrogance of this White House knows no bounds.
Wow, where are the usual liberal lemmings hammering this Republican for having the audacity to speak ill of the chosen one and not his one bad czar, not two, but MANY.
What's that, oops, my bad, he is a Democrat, no story here.
Feinstein, Byrd and others have also questioned the administration about this as well, but they are the most arrogant bunch of little leaguers EVER and they have most of the MSM in their back pockets to squash any possible lengthy story.
The ones not in their back pocket are then targeted by the usual cowards, just like Saul Alinsky wrote about.