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Too Many Czars in Obama's Kitchen

Tevi Troy

As the world hopes that good news about the BP oil spill cap continues, there already are worrisome signs about the oversight and management in the next phase of this oil spill fiasco.

No fewer than nine formal investigations into the Gulf oil spill are now under way, according to The Washington Post, which warns ominously, “more could be coming.” The executive branch initiated four, Congress called for three, BP has one and an outside organization set up another.

Unfortunately, this crazy-quilt approach to investigating the disaster is all too similar to the administration’s approach to managing the crisis—which is one reason it has been handled so badly.

Just as there are a variety of investigations, the administration originally named a variety of officials as response point people to the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. Former U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen is in charge in the Gulf.

But back in Washington, a variety of players are on point. According to an official statement on the White House blog early in the crisis, President Barack Obama sent Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, assistant to the president for energy and climate change policy Carol Browner and Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to the Gulf Coast “to ensure all is being done to respond to this oil spill.”

In addition, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus is overseeing long-term recovery. And Ken Feinberg is, as usual, the special master in charge of payments.

That’s a long list. The problem is that if everyone is responsible for the response, ultimately, no one is.

Of course, many administrations have had the problem of too many cooks in the kitchen. At a White House meeting I attended after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the head of the National Economic Council came in and asserted his leadership role. After he laid out what he wanted the assembled staff to do, the deputy secretary of Homeland Security raised his hand and asked the NEC head who he was—the two men had never met before.

These kinds of mix-ups can happen in a government as big and sprawling as ours.

With this problem in mind, the Bush White House tried to streamline operations by putting different agencies in charge of the Katrina response at different times.

The Homeland Security Council initially led the response because of its emergency-management function. The Domestic Policy Council, where I worked at the time, was then handed the baton, because of its oversight of crucial response elements like housing, welfare payments, public health and the environment.

The NEC, with its responsibility for the devastated Gulf economy, took over for the recovery phase.

Eventually, the White House established the Office of the Federal Coordinator of Gulf Coast Rebuilding. The rotating leadership seemed to make sense at the time, but it created weakness on the accountability front.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration muddled its chain of command on management of the BP crisis—just as it now appears to be doing on the investigative front.

The Homeland Security Council, in charge of the Gulf situation at the White House, was downgraded at the start of the Obama administration to a component of the National Security Council. Under former President George W. Bush, it was a free-standing White House entity with direct access to the president, and did not have to report through the large and bureaucratic NSC.

The last thing crisis responders or investigators need is more layers of bureaucracy—which has become a hallmark of an administration with a heavy reliance on “czars.” According to Politifact, the Obama administration has appointed 28 czars. This has led to overlap, confusion and frequent ineffectiveness on a variety of fronts.

Problems created by a proliferation of senior officials are magnified in a far-reaching crisis—like the Gulf spill, in which economic, energy, environmental, health and security implications draw in an ever-widening circle of Cabinet-level officials and White House aides with responsibilities in each area.

So what’s a president to do? The difficulties of governmental management recall Harry S. Truman’s observation of the trouble he foresaw for former President Dwight D. Eisenhower: “He’ll sit there all day saying, ‘do this, do that’—and nothing will happen.”

Truman was wrong about Ike, but the problem is real. In times of crisis, presidents can’t get people to “do this” or “do that” without clear lines of authority and responsibility.

As the oil spill crisis moves from response to attempted recovery and investigation, the administration needs to remember how poorly its multiple manager style worked in the first phase—and come up with a focused management plan for the next.

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