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Who Are the Czars, and Where Did They Come From?

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OpenCongress doesn't delve too often into the realm of the Executive Branch, but I've received several e-mails of late asking about congressional involvement when President Obama names a "czar" within his administration. Most of the e-mails center around the meme that these "czars" are appointed without congressional approval, and have broad sway over federal powers.

The situation, of course, is a little more nuanced. There are no formal "czars" within the framework of government, and the term itself was created by the media. Take for example, Gil Kerlikowske, the president's appointee to be Director of National Drug Control Policy, or, as he's commonly known, the drug czar. The term "drug czar" was first coined by the media during President Richard Nixon's term, and the media named other officials "czars" back in the 1940s.

Most of those positions referred to as "czars," like the drug czar post, were created to address specific issues. Many are subject to Senate approval, though some are not.

You can use a variety of tools produced by the Sunlight Foundation and its partners to learn more about these individuals. Perhaps the most useful site, however, is LittleSis.org.

For those of you unfamiliar, LittleSis is an "involuntary Facebook" for politicians and influencers. They're finding all the little connections between policy makers, corporations, and other influencers. LittleSis has campaign contribution information, shows employment history for many of the individuals in its database, and has profiles for organizations and corporations. They even have a list of the so-called "czars" within the Obama administration. I chose one at random*, the Director of the White House Office of Health Reform: Nancy-Ann DeParle, also known as Obama's "health care czar."

Using LittleSis, we can see that DeParle is a commissioner on the Medicare Payment Advisory Committee and was once a director of the Health Care Financing Administration (which is now the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services). She also has an extensive business background, having served as senior advisor to JP Morgan Services between 2000-2007 and a director of Boston Scientific, a manufacturer of medical devices.

DeParle maxed out her campaign contributions to Sen. John Kerry and Sec. of State Hillary Clinton during their respective presidential bids, and she's given $15,000 to a political action committee for DaVita Inc., where she served as a director until July 2008.

DaVita Inc. is a major provider of dialysis services across the country. According to its LittleSis profile, DaVita has spent more than $3 million since 2005 for lobbying. Boston Scientific has also spent millions on lobbying aimed at the Food and Drug Administration, CMMS, the Department of Health and Human Services, and, naturally, the U.S. House and Senate.

None of this is to insinuate wrongdoing or impropriety. The information on Little Sis is just that: information, usually from official sources (like the Federal Election Commission) or from trusted sources (major media outlets, corporate Web sites) that shows relationships. With this information, you can see how DeParle transitioned from a job overseeing Medicare and Medicaid during the Clinton administration to work in the private health care industry. She's since returned to government employment as the key player in the Obama administration's push for health care reform.

For more information, check out this Wikipedia list of "czars" within the U.S. government: it shows how many czars were appointed by each president (going back to FDR), and identifies whether a "czar" requires Senate approval.

*(Seriously, with all the discussion of health care reform around these parts, that office would have been the last one I would pick.)