The resignation of the White House’s green jobs adviser, Van Jones, for his radicalism and outrageous statements has been accompanied by a serious outbreak of anti-czardom, i.e., criticism of the Obama Administration for creating “czars” with great authority but no accountability. The fervor is most fearsome among the blogospheric right, and Glenn Beck on Fox has been impassioned on the topic.
It’s a good, legitimate issue, but too much of the criticism about czars has been indiscriminate and wrong. As Jonah Goldberg writes at National Review Online’s The Corner:
Politico has a report up that conservatives, flush with victory over Van Jones, are going to go after other czars. One problem, the three people it lists as next on the conservative list aren’t actually czars.
Cass Sunstein, President Obama’s nominee to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) in the Office of Management and Budget, is a prime example of this misrepresentation. Nominee. He was nominated. He has to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
People who protest czars say the White House creates these ad hoc positions to evade the confirmation process. (Van Jones, for example.) But that doesn’t apply in the case of Sunstein, who underwent a confirmation hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee on May 12 and was reported out on May 20. (Committee news release.) Cloture has been filed and we can expect a Senate floor vote this week.
And the head of OIRA is anything but an ad hoc position. The office is a statutory one within the Office of Management and Budget, created by Congress in the 1980 Paperwork Reduction Act to bring additional accountability to the writing of Executive Branch regulations. Here’s the language — it’s Chapter 35, paragraph 3503. OIRA serves important oversight and coordination duties as Congress specified in law.
So, the czarist critique of Sunstein is just wrong. One can certainly oppose his confirmation on the merits, but the efforts to paint him as a far-out animal rights, anti-gun or organ-harvesting extremist are only tangentially related to reality. Sunstein’s prepared statement and testimony at his confirmation hearing addressed the first two issues persuasively, and this post today by Glenn Reynolds points out how Sunstein’s positions have been misrepresented on organ donation.
Sunstein was a respected law professor at the University of Chicago for many years before going to Harvard. (White House bio.) In his numerous books and writings, he has written some provocative things, but nothing beyond the pale (or remotely as offensive as Jones’ statements). There should be room for thinkers in government.
On the matter of regulation, he’s top-notch. In his book, “Laws of Fear: Beyond the Precautionary Principle,” Sunstein against against the incoherence of the precautionary principle, which holds that products or practices must be proved safe before they can be allowed into the marketplace. This Boston Globe column by Sunstein, “Throwing precaution to the wind,” summarizes his arguments well. Note:
The simplest problem with the precautionary principle is that regulation might well deprive society of significant benefits, and even produce a large number of deaths that would otherwise not occur. In some cases, government regulation eliminates the “opportunity benefits” of a process or activity, and thus threatens to cause preventable deaths.
Indeed, Sunstein’s appreciation for cost-benefit analysis has brought him of criticism from “consumer activists” who would love to overregulate economic activity into paralysis. The trial-lawyer backed groups are suspicious of him on the issue of federal preemption. Those are signs of his merit in our book.
So Cass Sunstein will not be a White House czar, he’s gone through a thorough confirmation hearing and approval by the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, and his writings show him to be a supporter of regulatory reason and the benefits of the free market.
Those attributes make him a poor target for the political attacks du jour. But they would make him a good head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.
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