October 2013 was not a great time to be on the health care reform team in the Obama White House. The rollout for healthcare.gov--the web site that had been set up for the federal insurance exchange mandated by the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare)--had been bungled, with only a few thousand sign-ups a month after the site's launch. Pressure was growing for the administration to appoint a high-profile manager to coordinate interagency efforts to solve the technological problems, improve communications, and implement the immense and complex health care legislation to give Americans plenty of time to sign up for new insurance plans before the December 23, 2013, deadline.
This kind of bureaucratic solution to a major, salient policy challenge was not unique; indeed, it has been so commonplace over the past several decades that the phenomenon has its own term: czar. From managing the war on drugs to overseeing efforts to avert potential Y2K disaster, czars have long been a preferred response to coordinating policy action that required cooperation across the myriad agencies, offices, and departments of the federal government. Czars have not always been an uncontroversial administrative solution, however, and no president knew more than Barack Obama just how contentious the usage of presidential policy czars really could be. Following his 2008 defeat of Senator John McCain (R-AZ), controversy grew over not only the new administration's alleged overreliance on czars, but also whether the staffing practice itself was constitutional (Vaughn and Villalobos 2012).
Several years later, the furor over czars in the Obama White House has largely subsided, but the czar phenomenon itself remains cloaked in misunderstanding. In this article, I attempt to resolve much of the uncertainty and unease surrounding the roles policy czars have played and continue to play in the contemporary presidency. In doing so I first discuss what constitutes a czar. I then examine why czars have been controversial and, in light of that controversy, provide a theoretical explanation for why presidents continue to use them. Finally, I conclude with a discussion of the key factors involved in successful czar policy leadership and how presidents can better utilize their czars, suggestions that can help enhance presidential success while minimizing public controversy.
The term "czar" has been bandied about enough by politicos that it has become accepted shorthand for an influential administration official involved in a central policy area. For example, former George H. W. Bush deputy press secretary Alixe Glen notes a czar is "someone who can run it all. In a town like Washington that has so many fiefdoms and committees with long acronyms, calling someone simply a 'czar' gets the point across" (Trausch 1989). Obama administration spokesman Tommy Vietor sounded a similar refrain as he sought to tame the aforementioned staffing controversy in the administration's early days: "The term 'czar' is largely a media creation to make jobs that have existed under multiple administrations sound more exciting. Every president since Nixon has hired smart and qualified people to coordinate between agencies and the White House" (Markman 2009). This opinion appears to be shared across the ideological spectrum, as Gene Healy (2009) of the libertarian CATO Institute suggests that "'czar' is a media-coined, catchall term for presidential assistants tasked with coordinating policy on issues that cut across departmental lines" and Bradley Patterson (2009)--whose government service included stints in the Eisenhower, Nixon, and Ford administrations--has testified that "'czar' is not an official government title of anybody; it is a vernacular of executive branch public administration, harking back--in one account--at least to the Coolidge years. It is a label now used loosely hereabouts, especially by the media."
These examples reinforce the notion that "czar" is evocative of a vague administrative concept, yet the term still lacks a conceptual definition that is both precise and commonly accepted by political practitioners and pundits alike. Indeed, even former czars have trouble with the definition; as former Homeland Security Adviser Fran Townsend once noted: "I'm not sure what a czar is, or what it does" (Newsmax 2009). Such uncertainty has led some to decry the meaninglessness of the term, such as law professor Aaron Saiger (2011, 2582), who has written, "In short, whether an official is called a 'czar' tells you as much about her formal organizational position as whether she works for a 'department,' 'agency,' or an 'administration,' which is to say, nothing." Similarly, according to the Congressional Research Service, "For some, the term is being used to quickly convey an appointee's title (e.g., climate 'czar') in shorthand. For others, it is, perhaps, being used to convey a sense that power is being centralized in the White House or certain entities. When used in the political-science literature, the term generally refers to White House policy coordination or an intense focus by the appointee on an issue of great magnitude" (Schwemle et al. 2010, 1).
In what stands as the most thorough examination of the legal challenges potentially posed by czars, Mitchel Sollenberger and Mark Rozell (2012, 7) define a czar as "an executive branch official who is not confirmed by the Senate and is exercising final decision-making authority that often entails controlling budgetary programs, administering/coordinating a policy area, or otherwise promulgating rules, regulations, and orders that bind either government officials and/or the private sector." (1) This is a thoughtful and laudable attempt to operationalize an informal and contested administrative concept. However, this article resists subscribing to that approach and instead argues that in their attempts to formalize the term "czar," Sollenberger and Rozell have inadvertently stripped the concept of much of its meaning. That is, by hinging their definition on Senate confirmation, Sollenberger and Rozell disqualify several individuals that have been historically referred to as czars. Indeed, many of the individuals who presidents have referred to publicly as czars do not qualify for the label under the preceding definitions. For example, the administration official most frequently referred to as a czar--by presidents, other politicians, pundits, and the American people alike--is inarguably the drug czar, today officially known as the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Sollenberger and Rozell, however, take pains to argue that the drug czar is not an actual czar (and indeed is not one, per their definition). Why? Because since 1989, the drug czar has been subject to Senate confirmation. Although the internal logic of their definition is sound, the fact that it departs so significantly from what presidents themselves apparently believe justifies at least some skepticism about its external validity.
At the same time, it is imperative to be clear about what is meant by "czar" in this article. This article contends that the most accurate use of the term is when it is applied to members of an administration tasked with coordination responsibilities over a particular policy area, typically one related to a new policy problem or priority that an administration is intent on solving with the full force of the federal government, or at least appearing to do so. Or, as William Howell (2013, 33) notes, "'Czar' is political shorthand for a special policy adviser who is appointed by the president, without congressional oversight, for the purposes of coordinating and centralizing the activities of various executive branch offices." Whether these individuals have received Senate confirmation might often be a helpful indicator, but it is not fundamental to our understanding. Instead, it is function that is central to this definition. Keeping the definitional focus on function rather than confirmation allows greater confidence that subsequent analysis covers this administrative phenomenon's full range. Further, as "czar" is a rhetorical construct rather than a legal one, not hinging its definition on confirmation allows greater conceptual consistency between how czars are talked about in the political realm and how they are observed by scholars.
Why Are Czars Controversial?
Debates about what precisely constitutes a czar aside, the central substantive reason czars are controversial concerns the ramifications that presidential reliance on such personnel can have for the constitutional order. Critics argue that czars represent an illegal and even unconstitutional extension of presidential policy-making authority that occurs at the expense of Congress. For instance, Representative Steve Scalise (R-LA), the author of legislation to block funding for many of President Obama's czars, has referred to the policy advisors as "unappointed, unaccountable people who are literally running a shadow government, heading up these little fiefdoms that nobody can really seem to identify where they are or what they're doing" (Bravender 2011).
Sollenberger and Rozell (2012) provide a particularly compelling argument that certain presidential attempts to delegate authority can violate constitutional provisions included in the Appointments Clause and nondelegation doctrine. They contend that czars constitute a "constitutional aberration" and "a direct violation of the core principles of a system of separation of powers and government accountability" (3). Pointing back to Woodrow Wilson's appointment of Bernard Baruch to help manage the nation's economic mobilization during World War I, they suggest a dangerous precedent was set that established a new executive branch structure that largely alleviated presidents of the Senate...