Call it trickle-down politics.
President Obama has tightly embraced the 'czar' model of oversight and now first and second term members of Congress are following his lead. So far, about a dozen Democratic freshmen and sophomores have appointed some version of a stimulus czar to monitor spending in their respective districts.
Freshman Dan Maffei (D-N.Y.) was first, naming staffer Jason Chiesa to be his "Recovery Coordinator" on Friday, February 20th. Chiesa, the announcement noted, had previously served as New York Senator Charles Schumer's Deputy Representative, "where responsibilities included constituent outreach for ten central New York counties."
The Office of the Assistant to the Speaker, run by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), liked the idea and circulated a memo Monday encouraging other freshmen and sophomore members of Congress - typically the most politically vulnerable -- to appoint similar point-persons.
Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) went one better, adopting Obama's auto model by appointing an entire "Economic Recovery Team." Staffer Chris Neubauer, the deputy district director, was named "Economic Recovery Coordinator" the day the memo went out.
According to the memo: "Each office should choose a staffer and publicly name them as an Economic Development Coordinator or Recovery Director. This would be a natural addition to the portfolio of the staffer who handles outreach to the business/chamber community or the staffer who handles grant support requests or appropriations. Ideally, they are district based. Other staffers will need to be supportive of this new role, especially initially when the requests may be overwhelming." (Underlining in original.)
It also suggests: "Each office should 'brand' the local recovery in a frame that suits the realities of your district. Examples include: Renew Ohio; Michigan's Road to Recovery; New Day, New York; and Florida Tomorrow - be creative and make sure your boss is comfortable with the language. Have a conversation in your office: what should the recovery look like in your district? Which metrics will you use to measure progress? You should then buy a banner or signs, begin using this language with press releases, and incorporate it in member talking points."
Since then, Democratic Reps. Paul Hodes (N.H.), Larry Kissell (N.C.), Tom Perriello (Va.), Eric Massa (N.Y.), Mary Jo Kilroy (Ohio) and others have appointed specific staffers to monitor spending of the stimulus package within their districts.
Oversight aside, if the aim was to get positive local press coverage, the czars have already been a success. Take this flattering Star Gazette lead in Massa's local paper: "U.S. Rep. Eric Massa announced today the selection of Michael Heenan as New York's 29th District's recovery director. Heenan will work directly with Gov. David Paterson's office to ensure that the money spent from the stimulus package in the district is transparent, and that every dollar is accounted for."
The memo further urges members of Congress to "be responsive and communicate with constituents."
"Stories move hearts, statistics move minds. We need both and Members need to stay optimistic and empathetic," it argues. "The numbers involved in the recovery bill, the economy, the banks, and the entire media diet can be both numbing and distracting. Identify faces behind the statistics and make them central to your narrative. Let your member know if they are not projecting confidence about the recovery, or the economy in general. It's imperative that they do," it concludes.