WASHINGTON — The latest skirmish between conservatives and the Obama administration — the proliferation of "czars" named by the president to handle pressing issues — is prompting efforts in Congress to put limits on the White House.
Lawmakers from both political parties agree that the term itself is subjective, and they acknowledge that they aren't sure how many czars there are — or whether some of the special advisers are even czars at all.
"The question is: What do these guys do, and how much are they costing us?" says Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga. He is sponsoring a bill to withhold funding from any top policy adviser not confirmed by the Senate, which signs off on Cabinet secretaries and other top officials.
In the Senate, Democrats, such as Robert Byrd of West Virginia, are questioning the constitutionality of the advisers the White House says it needs to coordinate policy and advise the president on issues from health care to the Middle East. Republicans, such as Susan Collins of Maine, are trying to curb funding for them.
Unlike Cabinet secretaries, who regularly testify before Congress, most special advisers are accountable only to the president. Some, such as Carol Browner, who oversees climate change and energy issues, earn $172,200 a year, according to the White House's report on staff salaries.
Concerns about czars gained momentum in recent weeks when the political activism of Van Jones, who was in charge of promoting Obama's green jobs initiatives, came to light. Among other things, Jones had signed a petition for a group alleging that the Bush administration planned the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He resigned Sept. 5 and declined to comment for this story.
A central question in the debate: Just how many so-called czars are there?
Conservative commentator Glenn Beck, who has fueled concern about the advisers by charging that they are another manifestation of big government run amok under control of the Democrats, puts the count at 32. Politico, a Web-based publication covering politics, lists 29. Collins' office cites 18, excluding positions such as the AIDS czar that have existed for years.
Some lists include only special advisers who work in the White House, such as Nancy-Ann DeParle, who was named to coordinate efforts to revamp the health care system. Others include some Senate-confirmed officials who work in departments. The Pentagon's top weapons buyer, Undersecretary Ashton Carter, who reports to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, is dubbed the "weapons czar" on Beck's list.
There's also debate about what the advisers should be allowed to do. In 2005, Sen. David Vitter, R-La., pushed for a post-Hurricane Katrina "reconstruction czar" to advise the president on the most effective ways to rebuild on the Gulf Coast. Today, he is pushing to limit such advisers' ability to direct policy or mandate the use of government money in federal departments. He calls the appointment of non-confirmed advisers "an end-run around the constitutional process."
The White House says that's nonsense. Obama's aides say the advisers are needed to help coordinate policy across departments and advise the president on the important issues of the day, such as the war in Afghanistan and efforts to save the auto industry.
The term "czar," often used as a shorthand title by the news media, dates at least to the administration of Franklin Roosevelt, according to White House communications director Anita Dunn. Richard Nixon was the first to appoint a "drug czar," the position most commonly associated with the word. That post — officially the president's adviser on drug trafficking — was created by Congress.
The new advisers — including the czars for the auto industry, executive pay and health care — reflect the crises Obama faced when he took office and his broad agenda, Dunn says. Other positions, such as the one for closing the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, are short-term posts, she says.
Some senators of both parties, however, say they're concerned that the advisers add to the government bureaucracy, duplicate work being done at departments and blur the lines of authority with other top officials.
"Little information is available concerning their responsibilities and authorities," Collins says. "There is no careful Senate examination of their character and qualifications. And we are speaking here of some of the most senior positions within our government."
Democratic senators Byrd and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin also want to know about the number of advisers and question whether their appointments circumvent the government's system of checks and balances.
Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent and chairman of the governmental affairs committee, plans a hearing on the issue on Oct. 7. He says he expects to introduce "appropriate and thoughtful legislation to deal with this problem."
Some government experts say the flap is misplaced. "I'm underwhelmed with this particular issue," says Paul Light, an expert on presidential appointments and a professor at New York University. "At the end of the day, to me a White House staffer is a White House staffer."
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., complains the issue has been driven by "partisan commentators" who are "suggesting this is somehow a new phenomenon that's threatening our democracy."
The White House's czars, he says, are just expert advisers, not part of a "Muscovite conspiracy."