Van Jones resigned his position, the era of big government is over, and we can party like it’s 1789! Or not. Jones deserved to go, and should have been nowhere near the executive office in the first place, but rejoicing over his ouster is like stuffing bubble gum in a twenty foot hole in the Hoover Dam. Jones was a symptom of the larger problem, unconstitutional government, and his dismissal won’t stop the flood. He will be replaced with another “czar” in the same position, will still have Barack Obama’s ear, and Obama has yet to fire the other 31 unconstitutional “czars.” The prescription for the problem, however, can be found in the actions of the Founding Fathers and in the founding principles of the United States.
The process of appointing “czars” began in the Franklin Roosevelt administration. Roosevelt called them “dictators,” but that is simply semantics. Historically, these individuals have had little impact on the “crisis” they have been appointed to manage, but they are paid out of the treasury, are often unconfirmed by the Congress, and are trusted with, as the name suggests, dictatorial power over their respective department or agency. The term “czar,” of course, is derived from Julius Caesar, the famous Roman dictator who ultimately destroyed the Roman republic. That is hardly flattering language, and for most of American history, the name Caesar, tsar, or czar, have been derogatory terms. In fact, it would be sufficient to say that no president or political leader in the founding period, save for perhaps Alexander Hamilton, wanted to be attached to Caesar’s dubious reputation. Leave it to the federal government to change that.
Patrick Henry equated Caesar with tyranny during debate over the Stamp Act in 1765: “Caesar had his Brutus; Charles the First his Cromwell; and George the Third may profit by their example.” And Thomas Jefferson considered Caesar a fine example of government through force, nothing more. Is this what Americans expect from the federal government, force and tyranny? Where are constitutional restraint, congressional oversight, and the limitation on power? The founders certainly believed in the necessity of all three, but the federal “czars” typically face very little scrutiny or checks on their authority.
Proponents will argue that some of these individuals have been appointed through the Senate confirmation process. That is the same Senate that also approves virtually all usurpations of their constitutional authority by the executive branch and has become a rubber stamp for bigger, more expensive and intrusive, unconstitutional government. Supporters may also contend that a president should have the ability to choose his advisors. True. But that is why the president has a cabinet. George Washington, for example, relied almost solely on his cabinet during his two terms in office and often excluded John Adams, his vice-president, because he was not a cabinet member, much to Adams’ dismay. As president, Adams called his cabinet heads “masters,” and at times he had very little control over them, but they were hardly “dictators” or “czars.” And again, they were the heads of constitutional departments. Modern “czars” are not.
It was not until the Andrew Jackson administration that a president relied heavily on extra-departmental “advisors.” Jackson’s “Kitchen Cabinet,” a group of political allies and advisors that did include a couple of cabinet members, helped Jackson navigate the executive office, and many of his cabinet appointments were revolving doors. Those refusing to do his will or the collective will of the “Kitchen Cabinet” were shown the door. Perhaps that is why a leftist like John Meacham, Newsweek editor and author of American Lion, finds him so enticing. Jackson, in many ways, personified executive abuse and in that way his administration is a blueprint for the modern presidency. The Founders would have cringed.
If modern presidents followed their constitutional role diligently, as the five members of the founding generation who held that office did to a great degree, “czars” would be considered an unconscionable abuse of power. Washington wished to avoid any appearance of royalty or of military dictatorship, and his successors, with few exceptions, were willing to let congress direct the legislative agenda of the federal government. Such has not been the case with the modern imperial presidency. “Czars” have become an extension of the growth of the federal bureaucracy and the strengthening of the executive branch.
So, what can be done? Congress could refuse to pay the “czars” or it could legislate them out of existence. To be sure, the president would fight by claiming “executive privilege” and the case would most certainly end up in court. But the Constitution would be on the side of Congress. As it states in Article II, Section II, the president “shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.” “Czars” would fall under this section and should be eliminated by law. Or, state legislatures could simply refuse to enact their “decrees,” and in essence neutralize and nullify their authority. Either move would take legislative backbone, something the United States has not seen in decades.
Thus, Van Jones can come or go, but his removal is a very small victory in a full-scale political and ideological war. Until Congress or the states stand up to executive authority, the president will appoint more “czars”—by the way, George W. Bush had 35—and the government will continue to devolve into a centralized despotism. Celebrate the victory, but don’t rest on your laurels. Now, what about the other 31, and while we’re at it, what about the Constitution, Mr. President?