Cast your mind back to 2009, when conservatives suddenly became quite concerned about executive power. They channeled their rage into Obama’s czars. These were special advisers to the president, who helped set policy from inside the White House, rather than at the cabinet level. The White House health-care czar, Nancy-Ann DeParle, appeared to have greater input on Obamacare than Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. The energy-and-climate czar, Carol Browner, advised the president more regularly than then–EPA chief Lisa Jackson.
The Republican complaint seemed to mostly involve using the word “czar” a lot in a bid to make Obama sound vaguely Soviet, which looks rather quaint in retrospect. But other objections made sense. Unlike cabinet officials, czars did not have to seek Senate confirmation. They weren’t required to testify before or issue reports to congressional committees. Their communications could be protected through assertion of executive privilege, unlike more accessible cabinet-agency deliberations. In general, it was a method of centralizing power inside the White House bubble. “The rapid and easy accumulation of power by White House staff can threaten the Constitutional system of checks and balances,” wrote Democratic Senate lion Robert Byrd in February 2009. “At the worst, White House staff have taken direction and control of programmatic areas that are the statutory responsibility of Senate-confirmed officials.”
Flash forward to 2016, and Donald Trump is busy announcing czars. He added two yesterday: activist investor Carl Icahn as an adviser on deregulation, and economist Peter Navarro as a trade-policy czar. Neither will go through Senate confirmation. Icahn will reportedly not be a federal employee, which will keep all of his communications privileged. Financial vetting has been extremely slow for the cabinet choices; Icahn won’t need to jump those hoops. Every concern expressed about Obama’s czars hold for these appointees as well.
I eagerly await congressional hearings on the matter.
Beyond the banal point that presidents like to centralize power, the appointments do say some interesting things about Trump’s priorities. Icahn, a longtime business associate, seems like he’ll just be a guy on Trump’s speed dial. He’s not taking a salary or an office chair in Washington, and will merely be a mouthpiece for bulldozing regulations, as he states overtly in the press announcement: “It’s time to break free of excessive regulation and let our entrepreneurs do what they do best: create jobs and support communities.”