Billions and Billions of Czars

This article reports on the idea of having a “Pay Czar” to oversee executive compensation at entities that have accepted TARP funds.  (The proposed czar in this instance, Kenneth Feinberg, was one of my professors at Georgetown University Law Center.)  So far, President Obama has designated a number of “czars,” special envoys, and other non-confirmed officials to exercise extraordinary Executive Branch powers.  I don’t know how many czars the President has designated — it seems like a lot, which is why I can hear Carl Sagan of the Cosmos TV show era speaking of “billions and billions of czars” — but what is significant is that identifying people to act as “czars” skirts the confirmation mechanism that applies to other powerful Executive Branch officials.  If the President can routinely appoint officials who do not need to be confirmed by the Senate but who can nevertheless exercise wide-ranging powers, some of the essential “checks and balances” that are part of the constitutional process are lost.  The President is popular right now, and the same party controls the White House and Congress.  How would Congress feel if an unpopular President of another party were designating non-confirmed “czars” to exercise sweeping authority?

Another fundamental issue, of course, is why we need to designate (and pay) special individuals to oversee these programs.  Is the Treasury Department really so busy that there is no Assistant Secretary who can be held responsible for enforcing executive pay regulations as they apply to TARP fund recipients?

14 Minutes of Hell

I’m not sure if this account of the last 14 minutes of the flight that was lost over the Atlantic is accurate — the facts of what actually happened to the plane seem to be in a state of flux — but the story that is told is a nightmare for anyone who does a lot of air travel.  Anyone who regularly flies as part of his work must accept that there are risks and hope that the risks are not realized on their particular flight.  It’s bad enough to die in a plane crash — what would really be horrible would be knowing for an extended period of time that your plane is going down over water in the middle of the ocean, in the grip of a violent storm, with no hope of rescue or ultimate survival and no chance to call loved ones to say goodbye.

The Elevator Operator At The Washington Monument

The Washington Monument

The Washington Monument

The dire warnings from California (and probably elsewhere) about the government services that will be cut if tax increases aren’t forthcoming reminds me of 1981, when I began working on Capitol Hill for Congressman Wylie. At that time, President Reagan was trying to push through budget cuts in programs like milk price supports. One of the great stories (and, I think, apocryphal yet expressive of a deeper truth) about how turf-protecting bureaucrats react to proposed budget cuts involved the elevator operator at the Washington Monument. The story was that if anyone raised the possibility of cutting the budget for the Department of the Interior, the first person whose job would be cut would be that poor elevator operator. Visitors to the Monument then would have to climb all of the 897 steps to the top — and would complain to their elected representatives, who would cave in and restore the funding. The point is that bureaucrats often select and publicize budget cuts that will have the maximum negative impact on the maximum number of people as a passive-aggressive protest of the budget cuts, rather than making a legitimate effort to find ways for governmental entities to save money, reduce costs, and live within their means. I take it with a grain of salt when politicians or school board officials say that their first option to balance budgets after tax increases fail at the polls is to open prison doors, cut police forces, or eliminate high school football teams.