White House czars not unconstitutional, panel told

WASHINGTON — President Obama isn't skirting the U.S. Constitution or abusing his authority by appointing "czars," or policy coordinators, to oversee certain issues or problems, a Senate panel was told Tuesday.

Conservative talk show hosts and some mostly Republican lawmakers have accused Obama of embarking on an unprecedented czar-appointment spree in a bid to circumvent Congress' authority over top executive appointments, to dodge congressional oversight and to consolidate power in the White House.

Cabinet officers must be confirmed by the Senate and must report back to Congress frequently as lawmakers exercise constitutional oversight of the executive branch. But White House staff appointees — including "czars" — aren't subject to Senate confirmation and often decline to testify before Congress, citing "executive privilege" to confine their advice to their boss, the president.

However, a panel of experts testifying before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution said the number of such czars has been rising since the Nixon administration and that most czars aren't the all-powerful figures that critics portray them to be.

"There does not appear to be any fundamental constitutional or legal basis upon which a president's reliance upon high-level, political advisers may be questioned or prohibited," T.J. Halstead, deputy assistant director of the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service's American Law Division, said in written testimony. "While the number of such advisers has grown substantially over the past few decades, that growth, even coupled with the arguably concordant increase in their influence, does not render their service presumptively unconstitutional."

Tuesday's hearing didn't satisfy Obama critics.

Shortly after it began, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, issued a statement saying that he's "troubled by this administration's pattern of appointing so-called executive branch czars to important policymaking roles, an obvious attempt to bypass the Senate's constitutional 'advice and consent' role."

Sessions said Obama has named more than 30 czars since taking office, but that number is in dispute. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, in a letter last week to Obama signed by five other Republicans, put the number at 18.