Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., speaks to people demonstrating against the health care bill on the U.S. Capitol steps a day before Congress is set to vote on health care reform on Saturday, March 20, 2010 on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Lauren Victoria Burke/AP

When you wish upon a czar

For the better part of six years, President Obama’s Republican critics have condemned the very idea using federal “czars” to address specific policy challenges. The criticisms have never really made any sense – the Bush/Cheney administration relied far more heavily on czars than Obama – but it’s nevertheless been one of the right’s more common condemnations of the White House.
 
That is, until this weekend, when some Republicans decided czars aren’t so bad after all.
 
Late Friday, for example, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) demanded the Obama administration have “a single individual in charge of coordinating America’s Ebola response.” Burr didn’t use the word “czar,” but that’s exactly what he was describing. Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) was even more explicit in an interview with the conservative Washington Examiner.
Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., said Saturday that while he “hate[s] to invoke the term ‘czar,’” President Obama needs one to combat the spread of the deadly Ebola virus. […]
 
The congressman said the United States needs a “George Mitchell type character” to lead “one central office that’s a clearinghouse” to unify the efforts of government entities like the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention…. The congressman said he thought the scientists involved were doing well, but “you need a command and control general, a strategic guy.”
The irony is truly extraordinary. It was none other than Jack Kingston who was so disgusted with the very idea of the executive branch utilizing czars that he introduced federal legislation in 2009 to cut off funding for these officials altogether. The bill didn’t go anywhere in the Democratic-led chamber, but it picked up over 100 Republican co-sponsors.
 
And yet, here we are. Faced with Ebola fears, the exact same far-right lawmaker who championed an anti-czar push is now calling for … a new czar.
 
The Georgia Republican’s dramatic change of heart notwithstanding, there are two basic angles to consider here.
 
The first is a question as to whether a czar is actually needed. The White House, at least as of Saturday, said existing officials working within the relevant agencies are already tackling the matter effectively, so creating a new, single point person to oversee coordination of the U.S. response is unnecessary.
 
This position may change, of course, if conditions warrant a shift in posture, but for now, there doesn’t appear to be a new czar on the way.
 
I should add, of course, the nation’s Surgeon General could presumably play a valuable role in the U.S. response, but right now, there is no Surgeon General – the White House’s nominee believes gun violence is a public-health issue, so the National Rifle Association won’t let the Senate confirm him.
 
But the other angle is the trajectory of this amazing conversation. It wasn’t too long ago that congressional Republicans quite literally referenced Obama’s use of czars as grounds for presidential impeachment. Now we see GOP lawmakers demanding to know why the White House isn’t using a czar in response to Ebola.
 
In other words, the old Republican line is that Obama was making a horrible mistake using so many czars. The new Republican line is that Obama is making a horrible mistake by not using enough czars.
 
The incoherence doesn’t come as too big a surprise. George W. Bush “had 36 czar positions filled by 46 people during his eight years as president” – and no one found this the least bit controversial. As long-time readers may recall, I wrote a piece in 2007 on this, noting that the Bush/Cheney team would respond to almost every problem by creating a new czar – in the wake of highly publicized E. coli outbreaks, the Republican White House created a “food-safety czar.” When the administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina drew national outrage, a “Katrina czar” was introduced. Bush appointed a “bird-flu czar,” a “manufacturing czar,” an “AIDS czar,” and many, many more.
 
But when Obama followed a similar course – naming a point person to oversee the rescue of the American auto industry, for example – Republicans who said literally nothing about Bush’s related habit looked for the fainting couch. Five years ago last month, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-La.) called the practice “an affront to the Constitution” – but only when Obama does it.
 
And now we’ve come full circle, to the point that congressional Republicans who saw czars as a genuine political scandal now want a new one, and it’s the Obama White House that’s content to go without. It would have been hard to predict this at the height of the GOP’s whining in 2009.
 

Barack Obama, Ebola, Jack Kingston and Richard Burr

When you wish upon a czar