President Biden and the Coming Climate Czar Wars

Special Advisors to the President are Supposed to Solve Problems, but it Doesn't Always Work that Way

Even before being inaugurated next month, President Biden has a lot on his plate — the pandemic, cyber-attacks, climate change, China, the list goes on and on. One feature of the modern White House that allows the president to focus on so many issues is the ubiquity of “special advisors to the president” with policy portfolios both independent of and overlapping with those of the federal agencies of the Executive Branch.

You are no doubt familiar with the role — under President Trump special advisors have included the president’s former pandemic advisor Scott Atlas, and his daughter and son-in-law Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner. Since at least the Franklin Roosevelt administration, these special advisors have been often been informally called “czars” — a reflection of both their potential power and the informality of the role.

As part of his “climate team,” President-elect Biden has nominated Representative Deb Haaland (D-NM) as Secretary of the Interior and former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm as Secretary of Energy. But President-elect Biden is also creating a stable of climate czars within the White House. This is a recipe for failure.

In 1938, in response to a request for advice from Congress, a group of political scientists warned that “The President needs help,” as the demands of grappling with the Great Depression were outstripping the management capabilities of the White House. In response to this advice, Congress passed the Reorganization Act, which empowered the president to create the Executive Office of the President (EOP), better known as the West Wing.

Today, the president has a lot of help. The West Wing is staffed by more than 1,800 people, who work in a plethora of organizations, including the Office of Management and Budget, the National Security Council and the Office of Science and Technology Policy, to name just a few. To that list we can now add the White House Office of National Climate Policy, to be led by a new climate czar, Gina McCarthy, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency under President Obama.

McCarthy won’t be the only climate czar in the Biden White House. She will be joined by John Kerry, former Secretary of State under President Obama, who will carry the newly-created title Special Presidential Envoy for Climate. Kerry’s role, as pointed out by the Financial Times today, is awkward. Kerry is, ostensibly, in a less senior role than President Biden’s pick for Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken. However, in the Obama Administration Blinken was Kerry’s deputy at the State Department. As one close observer told the Financial Times, “Kerry will be the ‘secretary of world’ and Blinken will be the secretary of state.”

Already, Kerry has signaled that his portfolio will touch on policy issues related to immigration, energy, China, trade, Russia, infrastructure and more. With Kerry reporting directly to President Biden, his many portfolios that overlap with cabinet secretaries make confusion and tensions over turf appear inevitable. McCarthy, the domestic climate czar, has a similarly expansive portfolio, with (according to the New York Times), “authority to reach across the government to embed climate policies in virtually every federal agency… [and] expected to press cabinet secretaries to enact rules not requiring Congressional approval.”

With the seemingly inevitable conflicts that occur between czars who report only to the president and cabinet secretaries who are also accountable to Congress, an assessment of the historical role of policy czars in the White House concluded that “czars generally fail to find solutions to the problems that they are commissioned to confront.”

Instead, czars confuse matters. They disrupt lines of authority and accountability and they compromise bureaucratic discipline. They sometimes foment suspicion on Capitol Hill and rivalries within the Executive branch. The mere presence of policy "czar-doms" undermines the morale of officials in the standing table of organization who retain responsibility for developing and implementing policy while their authority and credibility are eclipsed by the czar.

Members of Congress of the political party opposite that of the president routinely question the legitimacy of White House policy czars. During the Trump presidency, Democrats — quite rightly — questioned Jared Kushner’s role in Middle East peace negotiations and Scott Atlas’ role in pandemic policy. Similarly, we can expect Congressional Republicans to raise questions about the expansive policy roles of Kerry and McCarthy.

Questioning the proper role of policy czars is not, however, simply partisan politics. There a long history of important debate over White House powers to implement policy via special advisors who are not confirmed by or accountable to Congress. White House czars have played an important role in the rise of the “imperial presidency” that has usurped powers from Congress, across administrations of both parties. Views on the proper balance of powers between the executive and legislative branches should not be a function of who sits in the White House.

President-elect Biden seems also to have forgotten lessons learned during his previous time in the White House. In his first term, President Obama famously assembled a “green dream team” to oversee climate issues. This set of all-stars included a Nobel Prize winner as Energy Secretary and put into place former director of the Environmental Protection Agency Carol Browner as a White House climate czar, leading a newly-created White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy .

Browner lasted as climate czar for only two years. Upon her departure the White House climate office was shut down, with its responsibilities folded into the Domestic Policy Council in the EOP. According to reports, Browner lost a power struggle over climate policy: “The deck was stacked against her to start.” Palace intrigue among the Obama “green dream team” meant that it did not last long either — most appointees left by the end of his first term.

Browner had faced earlier criticism for her role in misrepresenting science from the Department of the Interior on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. With the next iteration of the U.S. National Climate Assessment to be produced out of President Biden’s White House, the opportunities for scientific integrity shenanigans will continue to be ever-present. White House czars aren’t covered by scientific integrity policies that apply to the federal agencies.

Whatever drama may unfold in the Biden West Wing in the coming years, it should not distract us from the fact that progress on climate policy won’t be measured by political appointments or even executive actions. Just as President Biden’s reentry into the Paris Agreement will overturn the Trump Administration’s withdrawal, Biden’s successor could just as easily reverse Biden’s reentry. Instead, progress on climate policy depends far more on our collective ability to secure congressional legislation robust enough to survive future combination of Republic and Democratic control of the White House and Congress. More on that in a future column.