Obama’s Blunder: Hiring Too Many Cooks

I like Barack Obama; I voted for him because I wanted a fresh start beyond the stale 1960s debates, Olbermann vs. O’Reilly daily “hot button issue” and endless socialism vs. capitalism rock ‘em-sock ‘em robots that lead us nowhere and accomplish nothing.  We can’t afford that crap in times like these.  And I wanted a serious overhaul of the health care system (Obama’s opponent pledged not to touch the employer-based health insurance concept that’s been hurting us for so long).

I don’t consider most of the right-wing criticism of Obama to be very valid, but I do have my list of beefs with Obama, like the lame inaction over Darfur, ignoring the previous administration’s illegal acts, denying due process to prisoners, and more.  I’m also deeply skeptical of Obama’s Afghanistan plan (as I discussed here).

But something else disturbs me that is rarely mentioned: the problem of too many cooks.  Obama is adding a “czar” for every occasion, and new offices for many of the czars.  It’s making an already overly complex and large bureaucracy even moreso, and leaving the system even more byzantine for successor governments.



highly complex or intricate and occasionally devious; “the Byzantine tax structure”; “Byzantine methods for holding on to his chairmanship”; “convoluted legal language”; “convoluted reasoning”; “the plot was too involved”; “a knotty problem”; “got his way by labyrinthine maneuvering”; “Oh, what a tangled web we weave”- Sir Walter Scott; “tortuous legal procedures”; “tortuous negotiations lasting for months”

From: byzantine – dictionary.com.

Ridiculous bureaucracy, of which I am an (all too familiar) opponent, is dubbed “byzantine” because of what happened to the Byzantine Empire, with its enormous and complicated legal codes only understood by a cadre of royal bureaucrats.  When the law is only understood by the few, that breeds corruption.  When government is too huge and complex to be easily accessed by the public, it, paradoxically, reduces government’s functioning and power.  The Byzantine Empire, actually a great milestone in cultural and administrative achievement, collapsed when it became too weakened by its own complexity and corruption to resist invaders (though there’s a lot more to it).

I don’t want the U.S. government to be “byzantine.”  Clinton tried fixing some of this with his “Reinventing Government” initiative (he usually gets no cred for this). They really did reduce some government forms from 30+ pages to 1 page, disbanded Reagan’s personal furniture maker and bought from Office Depot instead, and “cut the fat” from a lot of departments. They didn’t make much headway on consolidating and downsizing agencies like they wanted to, because of fierce resistance from bureaucrats prepared to defend their jobs Thermopylae-style, and they were occupied by other things (subpoenas for the White House xmas card list, etc.)  I would like to see “Reinventing Government” on steroids…radically streamlining federal agencies and attacking waste.  I want Obama to use an iron fist to override administrators defending their sacred bureaucratic turf, and radically consolidate our insanely duplicative, bloated bureaucracy. Dept. of Treasury and Dept. of Commerce should be one agency, for example. The Dept. of Homeland Security (Bush’s massive expansion of government) should be abolished and whatever is actually useful within it would be consolidated into the FBI and other existing agencies.

But streamlining is not the direction Obama’s going in.  Instead, we’ve got the newly created Office of Health Reform headed by Health czar Nancy-Ann DeParle, Urban affairs czar Adolfo Carrion Jr., Economics czar Paul A. Volcker, Regulatory czar Cass R. Sunstein, Climate Change czar Carol Browner, Border czar Alan Bersin, and more.  And, of course, a government performance czar (Jeffrey Zients) to help manage all the czar (“czar of czars!”)

Aside from the fact that a parade of “czars” in the White House may make the vehemently anti-monarchist Founding Fathers rise from their graves in a rage, triggering the much anticipated zombie apocalypse, there are serious concerns that “czars” greatly reduce transparency and consolidate power in the White House.

Zombie Jefferson will be the first to go on a rampage, devouring the brains of the innocent
Zombie Jefferson will be the first to go on a rampage, devouring the brains of the innocent

Cabinet officers are subject to Senate confirmation and oversight; czars are not.  Czars are hired directly by the president (“serve at the pleasure of the president,” always an odd, dirty-sounding phrase) and can refuse to provide documents or public testimony based on “executive privilege.”  Senator Robert Byrd raised his objections in a letter to Obama.  Czars “inhibit openness and transparency, and reduce accountability,” Byrd said.  “The rapid and easy accumulation of power by White House staff can threaten the constitutional system of checks and balances.”

My biggest concern is what this monster turns into 10-20 years down the line.

Known for their intellect and experience, these appointees could become rivals or advocates of competing ideas that could hinder White House operations if not skillfully coordinated.

Administration officials will have to “watch and see when it starts to become dysfunctional,” said Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution scholar who has held several top government jobs going back to 1959. “It’s a very high risk because you’re adding without subtracting.”

When naming Volcker to his team, Obama could have scrapped either Romer’s or Summers’ agency, and divided the advisory duties between two groups, Hess said. “Instead, he adds a third.”

Paul Light, a specialist on government organization at New York University, said, “They’re kind of addicted to czars right now. I think they’re more trouble than they’re worth.”

Obama obviously disagrees. He has signaled plans to name Bronx politician Adolfo Carrion Jr. to a new White House post coordinating urban housing and education policies. And he has named Nancy Killefer to the new job of “chief performance officer,” which oversees many agencies.

He is hardly the first president to have a close aide coordinating several agencies. For years, a White House-based national security adviser has tried to put together information from the military, State Department and intelligence agencies.

But Obama’s creation of new policy czars and special envoys is pushing White House centralization to new levels.

Some government veterans say the strategy can help a president shape policy with minimum interference from Cabinet agencies. Under the right circumstances, a White House czar “can cut through some of the interagency disagreements that slow down and clog the policymaking process,” said Bill Galston, a University of Maryland professor and former Clinton White House aide.

But the system can be cumbersome, rife with jealousies and hampered by conflicting efforts and messages, Galston said. To make it work, he said, Obama “will have to be a way-above-average president,” which he has the “intellect and temperament” to be.

Source: AP: Obama’s White House: Big posts, overlapping tasks

Obama likely has above-average skills.  But what about his successors?  What will America become?