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Dancing With the Czars


  The use of the term "czar" as shorthand for a White House expert or adviser stretches back to the administration of Woodrow Wilson (who appointed Herbert Hoover "food czar" during World War I), and has continued through administrations as politically diverse as those of Franklin D. Roosevelt, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan (who in 1998 made the role of "drug czar" a Cabinet-level position). Nevertheless, President Barack Obama's use of "czars" hasn't settled well with some conservatives, who have drawn the line against "White House czars" with a ferocity suggesting there are actual Russian emperors issuing orders from the Oval Office.

  Today, the word "czar" may have no greater Beltway foes than Louisiana's own U.S. Sen. David Vitter and Congressman Steve Scalise. In 2009, each introduced anti-czar legislation into his own house of Congress. Earlier this year, Scalise got an anti-czars amendment into a House appropriations bill, scotching funding for several particularly loathed White House programs (including health care, urban affairs and climate change). In a statement, Scalise called them "unappointed, unaccountable people who are literally running a shadow government."

  Vitter has had a tougher time getting his point across. His bill to kneecap Obama's czars failed last month in a 47-51 vote, but he's not giving up. Last week, he told the Louisiana-based Pelican Institute, "As long as the czars continue calling shots that have a profound effect on our lives, like how the climate czar was instrumental in forcing the job-killing moratorium, I'll continue pushing my legislation to prohibit their funding."

  At the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans in June, presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich told the crowd that on his first day in office, immediately after inauguration, he would sign an executive order abolishing White House czars (but not, presumably, experts or advisers). "We shouldn't have un-appointed dictators in the White House telling the rest of us what to do outside the Constitution," Gingrich said in a recent interview. Though Gingrich offered no specifics regarding either dictatorship or extra-constitutionality, it seemed to be a change of position for the former Speaker of the House. In 1996, Gingrich actually criticized Clinton for cutting funding to the office of the White House drug czar, and in 2007, Gingrich sent an 18-point letter to then-President George W. Bush advocating the creation of a "war czar" to oversee the Afghanistan and Iraqi conflicts.

  Meanwhile, the most famous czar of all — GOP stalwart William Bennett, Secretary of Education who became George H.W. Bush's "drug czar" — doesn't seem to be troubled by the appellation. His official biography still lists him as "President Bush's 'drug czar'" — but don't tell Vitter and Scalise. — Kevin Allman

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