Dual Control

The selection of political Ron Klain as ‘Ebola czar’ has been criticized on the grounds that he has no medical or public health qualification.  But relatively little attention has been focused on the word ‘czar’ itself.  The term ‘czar’ in the American sense, begins with FDR. It loosely described a type of inter-agency coordinator with the authority “to go outside of formal channels and find creative solutions for ad hoc problems, the ability to involve a lot of government players in big issue decision-making, and the ability to get a huge bureaucracy moving in the right direction … managing competing power centers.”


The term also meant something else: an official operating outside the regular offices of government who hasn’t been confirmed by the Senate.  The Liberty Law site describes their history in the following way, even before they were called by the name: “czars began as emergency responses to the extraordinary demands of World Wars I and II, and then took hold during normal times.”

But even these emergency measures were legally suspect. Woodrow Wilson used the Overman Act of 1918 to create new position for Bernard Baruch over a new agency over increasing the production of raw materials, even though “nowhere in the law did Congress provide Wilson with the power to create a government structure, excepting an agency to manage the production of aircraft”. Similarly, FDR used the First War Powers Act of 1941 to create multiple czars, even though “nothing” in that act “authorized the president to create new agencies or offices”. These emergency measures were “consolidated” into routine governance under Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson: “By the 1960’s, presidents had become accustomed to the idea and practice of centralizing power and moving away from a reliance on department heads and the traditional cabinet governing system”.


President’s name Party In office Number of
czar titles
Number of
Appointees not
confirmed by Senate
Franklin Roosevelt D 1933–1945 11 19 17
Harry Truman D 1945–1953 6 6 5
Dwight Eisenhower R 1953–1961 1 1 0
Lyndon Johnson D 1963–1969 3 3 1
Richard Nixon R 1969–1974 3 5 5
Gerald Ford R 1974–1977 2 2 2
Jimmy Carter D 1977–1981 2 3 2
Ronald Reagan R 1981–1989 1 1 1
George H. W. Bush R 1989–1993 2 3 0
Bill Clinton D 1993–2001 8 11 7
George W. Bush R 2001–2009 33 49 28
Barack Obama D 2009– 38 44 35

Katheryn Schultz argues that ‘czar’ is just a catchy name. “It is the press, not the executive office, that insists on calling them czars. That is largely about expedience: “WMD Czar” is a lot more manageable in a headline than ‘Special Assistant to the President and White House Coordinator for Arms Control and Weapons of Mass Destruction, Proliferation, and Terrorism.’ Executives, in fact, generally dislike, discourage, and avoid the use of czar … we just love the way that it sounds.”

But there is in fact, a substantive difference. They are a parallel system of command. As suggested by this article in Western Journalism, their chief qualification is political adherence to the president’s ideology and personal loyalty to him.  In fact it may be argued that they are not ‘czars’ in the  sense of inter-agency enablers.  It will probably be the role of Klain — like  Cass Sunstein, Todd Stern, John Holdren, Mark Lloyd, Eric Holder, Susan Rice, Samantha Power, etc — to make sure the bureaucracy knows who they are working for and for what ends.  They’re not just ‘coordinators’ any more. They are a kind of enforcer. They work is better described by another Russian word: zampolit or political officer.

The Liberty Law site describes the belated recognition of this function. (Emphasis mine)

In particular, this should be of interest to scholars in the unilateral presidency literature.  Over the last fifteen years, this scholarship (See the work of William Howell and Kenneth Mayer for examples) has moved away from Richard Neustadt’s declaration that presidential power was merely the power to persuade and instead have recovered the importance of the presidential power to command.  Specifically, this approach has found that presidents can and do make policy through executive orders, proclamations, signing statements, etc.  Moreover, they have turned to advanced quantitative analysis to understand the conditions under which presidents use these powers, finding that presidents often “think politically” before they act “first and alone.”  Sollenberger and Rozell’s charts will be of interest, then, because it offers a way to understand the way a particular kind of executive action (creating a czar) has been used over time.  These are significant moments of policy creation, and they can now be studied as a group.


The position of political officer has a long tradition in  politics, as one branch in a system of  dual control.  In one party municipal governments there is often a ‘machine’ underneath the veneer of the official positions.  But one of these modes of control predominates.  In case of a conflict, politics prevails. For it is the political line above all else.

In Communist Parties this primacy is official. For example, everyone in the Politburo Standing Committee in the Communist Party of China wears two hats: the Party or political position and the State position.  For example, Xi Jinping’s Party positons are: General Secretary of the CPC Central Committee, Chairman of the CPC Central Military Commission, Leader of the Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reforms, Chairman of the National Security Commission.

As General Secretary of the CPC, Xi Jinping tells himself, as President of the PRC what to do.  Recently, the bureaucracy has failed Obama. Michael Shear and Mark Lander of the New York Times report that “Amid Assurances on Ebola, Obama Is Said to Seethe”.  They go on to describe the private fury of president Obama at having been humiliated in public and his determination that it not be repeated.

the sense of crisis that emanated from the White House was in sharp contrast to Sept. 30, when Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian who had traveled to Dallas, tested positive for Ebola. Mr. Obama received a telephone briefing from Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the director of the C.D.C., after which the White House issued a sanguine statement that concluded: “We have the infrastructure in place to respond safely and effectively.”…

The business-as-usual sentiment at the White House changed abruptly, officials said, when it got word early Wednesday that a second nurse in Dallas contracted the disease. The fact that she had traveled on a Frontier Airlines flight despite having a fever added to the concern, officials said.

“This Frontier thing took it out of the abstract thing and to this level where people could identify with and made them scared,” a senior official said. Within hours, White House aides canceled a planned trip by Mr. Obama to Connecticut and New Jersey. Hours later, Thursday’s trip to Rhode Island and New York City was also scrubbed…

At the meeting on Wednesday, officials said, Mr. Obama placed much of the blame on the C.D.C. …

“It’s not tight,” a visibly angry Mr. Obama said of the response, according to people briefed on the meeting. He told aides they needed to get ahead of events and demanded a more hands-on approach, particularly from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “He was not satisfied with the response,” a senior official said.


Obama, as per the NYT, is angry.  He feels that his underlings have failed him.  He therefore needs to put someone he can trust, someone who is absolutely loyal, in a position where he can watch over his officers and ensure they carry out his wishes.  That’s why Klain doesn’t need any medical qualifications. His sole necessary qualification is blind loyalty.

There’s nothing unusual about this. In systems with dual control, the political overrides the official.  In the Red Army “the commissar also had the military authority to countermand the unit commander’s orders when required”. That authority was there for a reason: to ensure the primacy of the political. The zampolit‘s job was to make sure everyone knew he had the ear of the Boss; reported only to the Boss and would stop at nothing to protect the Boss.  If that doesn’t describe the role of a political operative, then nothing does.

The Guardian notes that president Obama needs someone who he hopes will guarantee that no more debacles happen.

Whatever concerns Congress had about Obama’s use of czars appear to have subsided in the face of the Ebola threat. As American writer (and former Guardian blogger) Jim Newell and others have noted, some of the loudest voices calling for an Ebola czar have come from the Republican side, and indeed from politicians who had once upon a time colorfully condemned the president’s czarism.

“We believe it is imperative that you designate a single, senior advisor who will be responsible for coordinating all US agencies and policies involving the international and domestic response to Ebola,” Republican legislators Jerry Moran and Frank Wolf wrote to the president earlier this month.

A single, senior advisor responsible for coordinating all agencies and policies. If only there were a handy word for that.


There’s a crisis; and you never let a crisis go to waste.

The fictionalized account of what Nikita Kruschev did in Stalingrad is technically inaccurate, but conveys something of the flavor of what a political officer does.  He made sure the Soviet Army generals lived in fear of failure. ‘Czars’ don’t do this. But zampolits do.

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