In their century-long history, “czars” in Washington, D.C. have never had it easy. Much maligned, and only as powerful as a president makes them, these leaders have historically been tasked with fixing an enormous, intractable problem with no real power or authority, historians say.
Czar is not an official term, and some czars are more important than others. Who remembers the “rubber czar” of World War II, the “inflation czar” of the 1970s, or the “faith-based czar” of 2001?
Whether Kellyanne Conway, a counselor to President Trump, became the opioids “czar” this week has become a amusingly hot topic, even making it to the editorial pages of the New York Times. On Wednesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said that Conway was asked by Trump “to coordinate and lead the effort from the White House," in remarks on law enforcement moves to address illicit sales of these drugs. Opioids were linked to 53,000 deaths last year, roughly 80% of all fatal overdoses nationwide, according to preliminary CDC data for 2016.
Trump administration officials declined to comment on whether they consider Conway a czar. Political scholars who have studied these ersatz power brokers, however, thought the answer was obvious.
"If it walks like a czar, talks like a czar, quacks like a czar, it's a czar,” New York University political scientist Paul Light told BuzzFeed News. "There is no federal job classification with the word czar in it. A czar is a czar."
Having a central role in coordinating federal responses in the White House is what defines Conway as a czar, law professor Aaron Saiger of the Fordham University School of Law told BuzzFeed News. The word, a term for Russian royalty, has been employed by presidents and the press alike for decades to anoint administration officials as problem-solvers without going through a Congressional appointment. "They are only as powerful as the President makes them."
A successful czar needs four things, according to former Obama administration Ebola crisis czar Ron Klain. They need access to the president, a dedicated staff, money, and full-time attention to the problem.
So far, Conway only has the first one.
“If Kellyanne Conway thinks she is going to coordinate the response to this crisis on top of all the 20 other things she has to do, that is a joke,” said Klain, who headed a response team that reduced Ebola deaths in Africa that received high marks from public health experts. A big part of his job was identifying decisions that were locked up in agency bureaucracy and bringing them to the president for attention.
President Trump declared the opioids crisis a national public health emergency in October, saying, “it is time to liberate our communities from this scourge.” A bipartisan presidential panel headed by followed with release of a report this month outlining 56 recommendations for addressing the crisis across the federal government, ranging from increasing housing for recovering addicts to research on new non-opioid painkillers.
Money is also lacking in the emergency response to the opioids crisis. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has been leading a bipartisan panel on opioids (and who had seemed poised to be the opioids czar before Conway), said at a Congressional hearing in Baltimore on Tuesday that the emergency fund tapped for the crisis only has $62,000. The Ebola crisis, in contrast, generated a $5.4 billion response that Congress approved about a month after a presidential request in 2014.
“You can’t fight an epidemic without money,” Klain said, adding that the opioids crisis is a much bigger problem than Ebola.
Administrations past have had many, many drug czars, typically referring to the head of the Office of National Drug Policy. That last position is now held by an acting civil servant after the Trump nominee for the position, Rep. Tom Marino of Pennsylvania, withdrew from the required nomination process for the job. (That process ironically makes the position not really a czar anymore, said Light.)
Congresses typically dislike czars, seeing them as evasions from their oversight of the executive branch, and tend over time to convert the long-lasting ones, like the drug czar, budget czar, and intelligence czar, into permanent ones requiring Senate confirmation vote.
A polling expert, Conway has been closely involved in the Trump administration’s response to the opioids crisis, seen by some observers as a spark for the “Build A Wall” fervor among Trump voters in communities ravaged by Mexican heroin, since it began. She notably attended meetings of Christie’s commission, signaling Trump’s interest in the crisis.
The Obama administration had “more czars than the Romanovs,” Sen. John McCain quipped on Twitter in 2009. Those various green jobs czars, efficiency czars, and infrastructure czars soured Congress on unconfirmed administration officials riding roughshod on federal agencies, leading to attempts to rein them in a legislative battle that year. So far, Trump has not personally anointed anyone in his administration a “czar”. (And neither did Obama: Klain, for example, was officially the “Ebola response coordinator.”)
“It might be this administration doesn’t want a Russian official’s name on the staff,” Light said, alluding to the special counsel’s investigation into contacts between Russian officials and the Trump campaign last year. “The Trump administration will have to learn history started before Donald Trump, and presidents have had people we call czars for a long time.”
This post has been updated to clarify Aaron Saiger's position at Fordham University School of Law.