Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) is questioning the increasing influence of so-called presidential czars.
The president pro tempore of the Senate — and the chamber’s “Constitutional conscience,” according to his office — sent a letter this week to President Barack Obama outlining his concerns. Byrd wrote that newly created positions to guide policy on energy and in other areas risk expanding executive privilege and weakening the Senate’s authority.
“At the worst, White House staff have taken direction and control of programmatic areas that are the statutory responsibility of Senate-confirmed officials,” Byrd wrote.
The letter is a rare public expression of caution from a fellow Democratic leader, but Byrd, whose health has been declining in recent years, has a history of advocating for congressional authority. In 2004, he released a book criticizing what he saw as President George W. Bush’s arrogance.
Byrd cited three new White House positions Obama has created: the Office of Health Reform, which was to have been led by Tom Daschle, a former Senate majority leader and Alston & Bird adviser; the Office of Urban Affairs Policy, led by Adolfo Carrion, most recently the Bronx president; and the Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy, led by Carol Browner, former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and principal at The Albright Group.
“As presidential assistants and advisers, these White House staffers are not accountable for their actions to the Congress, to cabinet officials, and to virtually anyone but the president,” Byrd wrote. “They rarely testify before congressional committees, and often shield the information and decision-making process behind the assertion of executive privilege. In too many instances, White House staff have been allowed to inhibit openness and transparency, and reduce accountability.”
Assertions of executive privilege, Byrd suggests, should “be made only by the President, or with the President’s specific approval.” It will likely be up to the White House Counsel’s Office to help determine when those officials should invoke executive privilege.