Roger’s Rules

Steven Rattner redux, or Why You Were Right to think that Czars are Un-American

I know, I know, we’ve had “drug czars” and “energy czars.” But really, when you come right down to it, isn’t there something un-American about the whole idea of anointing a government official with the title “czar”? Something that smacks of unaccountability, for example, and that seems to belong to the world of diktats and ukases rather than the world of democratic government, the consent of the governed, and all those quaint ideas that were the staple of civics classes, back when we had civics classes? [UPDATE: Apparently I’m not the only one who feels this way about denominating certain American government officials “czars.”]

Consider the latest chapter in the rancid little drama that is the career of Steven Rattner, until yesterday Obama’s Car Czar. He’s the chap who oversaw the firing of Rick Wagoner from the company that used to be known as General Motors. He’s also the chap whose private equity fund, the Quadrangle Group, paid more than $1 million to receive New York State pension fund business. Back in April, when I first explained “Why Steven Rattner is Above the Law“, I pointed out that if you or I were (per impossible) to try this pay-to-play gambit with a state pension fund, we’d have the law on us before you can say “Andrew Cuomo.” If you are Steven Rattner, Obama Czar, however, you get The New York Times to sniff that “There is no indication in the complaint that Mr. Rattner faces criminal or civil charges in connection with the inquiry.”

Well, that was April. Mr. Rattner’s sudden departure from his Detroit throne raises some new questions. One industry commentator noted that “there also is the distinct possibility that Rattner could get further ensnared in the pension kickback mess, in which he’s already been tangentially implicated. Quadrangle has not yet reached a settlement with New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, and there also is talk that Lev Dassin, Acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and California AG Jerry Brown are itching to wade into the scandalous waters. Not saying to expect an indictment, but something more damaging than a slap on the wrist.”

Well, it will certainly be interesting to see how the story unfolds. The deeper question, however, goes far beyond the fate of Steven Rattner — a bit player, after all, however dubious. The deeper question concerns what George Will identified as “the tincture of lawlessness” that hovers about the Obama administration. Will was thinking primarily of the way Chrysler’s supposedly secured bondholders were treated, but in fact that maculation affects many aspects of the Obama administration. I suspect that key officials in the administration — beginning, I fear, with the President himself — do not really understand what the rule of law is all about. The nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court is one evidence of that deficit. Senator Al Franken, reverting to his earlier career as a comedian, publicly stated that in his view Sotomayor was “the most experienced Supreme Court nominee in 100 years.” (Ha, ha: what a card!) Obama’s reliance on powerful lieutenants who proceed with little or no public vetting or oversight — a.k.a., “czars” like Steven Rattner — is another dramatic example of the administration’s impatience with the rule of law. According to one report, Obama has named at least 18 such czars — people who wield enormous power but who are appointed without Senatorial scrutiny and who proceed more or less without accountability, except to the President.

That’s the way the autocrats of old did things. But until recently we tried to do them differently in the United States. If Sonia Sotomayor is appointed to the Supreme Court — as the smart money says she will be — federal workers will be busy for some weeks chipping off the blindfolds from the figures of Justice that decorate many court houses throughout the country. Justice will be anything but blind if the “wise Latina” has her way. But when that exercise in judicial vandalism is complete, we might have to to set those workers the much bigger task of erasing the bit about “advise and consent” from all available copies of the Constitution of the United States.