Preparing for the Next Presidential Transition
Every four years, the U.S. inaugurates a president to lead the country and the U.S. federal government. The transfer of power from one administration to the next marks a significant moment in U.S. history. Many may think the transition begins the day after the election. In reality, it begins much earlier. Leading candidates from both parties begin an informal transition process as early as the Spring of that election year.
While many may view this work done in vain, in the big picture, it is vital. Effective governing requires extensive preparation, including building a competent leadership team, making some four thousand political appointments, planning a $4.7 trillion budget, creating a comprehensive policy agenda, overseeing large scale operations, processes, and systems, and understanding how to manage a workforce of two million civilian employees and two million military personnel.
What is the history of U.S. Presidential Transitions? Why are they so important? How does the Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transition work to improve this process? Dave Marchick, Director of the Center for Presidential Transition at Partnership for Public Service joined me on The Business of Government Hour to explore these questions and more. Here's a synopsis of our discussion.
What is the mission of the Center for Presidential Transition?
It is a nonpartisan source of information and resources designed to help presidential candidates and their teams lay the groundwork for a new administration or for a president’s second term. The Center provides critical assistance on how to organize and execute a transition; helps agency career executives prepare for new political leadership; offers guidance to political appointees on the unique aspects of government leadership; and engages with Congress to promote transition reform
How has your operations changed during this pandemic national emergency?
We’re all working from home and following the social distancing guidelines. National emergencies like this one highlight and underscore the importance of our work. Given recent events, this could be the most important transition in modern times. This national crisis highlights the central role effective government management has on the wellbeing of our country. I think our work focusing on ensuring a successful transition is more important than ever.
Operationally, we’re doing things online. For instance, we’ve been planning for six weeks a high-level strategic planning session on presidential personnel with very senior people. The national emergency occurs and like most organizations we needed to pivot from having an in-person meeting to doing it virtually. That said, we are not skipping a beat. We are keeping a pace because what we are focused on is very important.
Would you give us an overview of the history and evolution of U.S. presidential transitions and the legislative requirements associated with such transitions. What are the key aspects of a transition of power?
This is fascinating topic to me. I have read much of the history of U.S. presidential transitions. There have been some very bad transitions. For example, when Andrew Jackson was elected, he refused to meet with Adams. They wouldn’t meet. They hated each other. Adams refused to attend Jackson’s inauguration. There was absolutely no collaboration. This also happened with Roosevelt and Hoover. They hated each other. There was total disdain. Roosevelt and Hoover refused to talk to each other or collaborate in any way. They didn’t even talk to each other in the car ride up to the inauguration. In both cases, there was basically no collaboration, no handoff, no cooperation.
President Truman was the first president to seriously focus on transition. I like to share a quote from President Truman. He said, “Whoever is elected in the fall, I don’t want him to face the kind of thing that I faced when I came into office, completely unbriefed and unprepared.” Truman tried to engage with Eisenhower and Stevenson who were the candidates for office in 1952. Stevenson said he would work with Truman while Eisenhower said no. Eisenhower thought it would be inappropriate.Truman famously wrote Eisenhower a letter basically saying he was an idiot and he is compromising the future of the country by not being willing to collaborate.
Fast-forward to 1976, Jimmy Carter was the first candidate to form a significant transition effort and to divert campaign resources to transition planning. Candidate Carter had a team led by Jack Watson in Atlanta of around fifty people. They quietly worked in the shadows to plan what Carter would do if he won the election. There was one big problem with what Carter did. He didn’t tell the campaign. He had a campaign apparatus and a transition apparatus working totally separately. The campaign didn’t know about the transition team until right before the election. As you would expect, after Carter wins a huge blow up occurs between the campaign team and the transition team. Those on the campaign, believing their work lead to the election of Jimmy Carter, believed they deserved to staff the government as well. The transition team thought otherwise and there was a serious clash. I dedicated an episode of our Transition Labs podcast discussing the Carter transition with Stuart Eizenstat and David Rubenstein. Both believe that this conflict led to a poor transition marked by lack of coordination and cost Carter his first year in office.
In 2000, there was the Bush v. Gore recount. Prior to 1933, the presidential transition period used to be about four months. In 1933, the law was changed and shortened it to around seventy-five: basically, between election day until inauguration date on January 20th. In 2000, that period was shortened because the next president wasn’t confirmed until mid-December. The Clinton to Bush transition was about thirty-five days. Given the contested situation, there wasn’t much collaboration between the Clinton and Bush teams. Eight months later, the 9/11 terror attracks happen and Bush didn’t have his entire national security team in place. He had his cabinet and deputy secretaries but many vacancies below those levels. This is one of the issues noted in the 9/11 Commission Report that a president needed to be able to have their national security team in place quickly.
President Bush decided he would focus on ensuring a proper transitioning for the next president. He asked his chief of staff Josh Bolten to put together the best transition effort ever. Josh did a fantastic job and deserves enormous credit. He started engaging both the McCain campaign and the Obama campaign right after their conventions. He was going to treat and work with both fairly and equally. Given the country was at war, the Bush administration wanted to ensure a smooth transition whoever won as it would be in the best interest of the country. Josh also engaged the executive departments to do the same – prepare for a smooth transition from the Bush administration to either the McCain or Obama administration. Interestingly, the Presidential Transition Act of 1963 was amended post-Bush to basically codify the best practices that Josh Bolten and President Bush pursued. The requirement that the agencies prepare to work with whomever wins, that they have a transition process that starts six months before the election. It requires strong collaboration with the campaigns. It requires the GSA to provide space and security clearances through the DNI to the transition teams.
I would say the Bush to Obama transition was probably the best in history both because of the collaboration of the outgoing Bush administration and also because the Obama team was very organized, did a very good job, and got off to a good start.
What factors contribute to the increase in importance of presidential transitions?
There are a couple of significant factors. The government has become much more complex. Couple the complexity of government with the sheer volume of change that happens with an incoming administration and you can understand why these transitions are so important. Think about it: this is the takeover of the largest organization anywhere in the world that has to happen in seventy-seven days. There are four thousand positions that need to be filled, 1,200 or so need to be confirmed by the senate. To be effective, a president has to have his or her people in place quickly. We are also working to emphasize the importance of transition planning by changing the perception that candidates doing transition planning aren’t being presumptuous but are being responsible.
How are presidential transitions funded?
The Presidential Transition Act and the appropriations bills that come every year do provide funding for transition planning. It tended to cost around $10 million for the campaigns to run their transition teams in the past couple of cycles. About half of that funding comes from the government through GSA for things like rent, computers, IT security, and other support services.
The campaigns also need to raise some money. Typically, campaigns need to raise five to six million dollars themselves. If a campaign accepts GSA and federal money, there are conditions legally imposed on them. There are campaign finance limits. The maximum donation for the transition effort is $5,000. The Enactment Act signed this year by President Trump requires the campaigns, as a condition for getting support services, to create and make public an ethics guideline document that will govern their ethics requirements during the transition period.
Effective management should be a critically important focus for any administration. Campaigns and people that run campaigns love to develop policy, think great thoughts, talk about how they are going to change things, and that is very important and critical to the national debate. That said, the most important issue is policy implementation. You can have the best ideas, but if you can’t implement them and can’t manage the government to effectively administer programs and implement programs, then the best policy ideas are essentially worthless. Today’s coronavirus crisis highlights the importance of effective management. If you look at the government response, there is a policy component to it. What’s the policy on people sheltering in place? What’s the policy on people wearing masks? The central crisis has also focused on implementation and management, test kits that test people for coronavirus, the emergency response, and the flow of funds. None of topics may be “sexy” but getting them done goes to the core of effective governance.
New presidential administrations often prioritize policy expertise over operational and leadership skills, particularly when selecting political appointees. What are some of the key challenges and best practices in this area and how does the Partnership’s Presidential Transition Guide help in this area?
There are four thousand political positions that a new president needs to appoint. Around 1,250 of them need to be confirmed by the senate. Let me just give you some data. President Obama, as I mentioned, had the most effective launch of a presidential transition. How many of those 1,250 people needing senate confirmation do you think Obama had in place one hundred days after taking office? He had sixty-nine. So, the best transition ever, President Obama had sixty-nine positions filled at the hundred-day mark. Again, the fastest, smoothest transition ever, he had less than half of his people in place at the one-year mark. Early transition planning helps speed up the process of getting people in place. Speeding up the process of getting people in place is essential for implementation of the policies of the new president and getting people in place is also critical for the management of the government. Doing this right is our focus at the center.
We have a guide that we put out during the last transition cycle. It was downloaded something like 20,000 times. It is 200-plus page resource that offers a step by step guide for things that the transition teams should think about doing to have a more effective and smooth transition. Our guide pulls together insights from the work of every previous transition since the Carter administration. It’s really a best practices guide that is available for the transition teams.
What can the next White House do to facilitate the process and accelerate confirmation for these positions? How can the appointments tracker help in this area?
An administration has a list of candidates who may be under consideration for a leadership position. From that list, the administration starts vetting the top tier candidates. The candidates must complete a questionnaire and undergo an FBI background check. They need to work with the Office of Government Ethics to make sure that they are in compliance with ethics laws. Ultimately, the president makes a decision on whether that person is appointed or not. If yes, that candidate must go through the senate confirmation process. The senate confirmation process alone can take four to six months. For cabinet officers, our data shows that the process goes fairly quickly about twenty to twenty-five days. That’s because the cabinet is a priority. For sub-cabinet positions, who really run the government, it takes four times as long as it does for cabinet positions.
It is obvious that this process can be too complicated, and takes too long. We are looking at ways to reform the process, For example, we are looking at ways to reform the FS-86, a 136-page form, that anyone up for a position in the administration and needs a security clearance must complete. We are looking to simplify the form and the overall process.Would tell us more about the Transition Lab podcast?
I host this podcast that focuses on presidential transition, talking with those who have done it before. I have had such fun doing it and am looking to do a total of 20 episodes. We’re going to dedicate a single episode on each of the transitions for every modern president from President Carter to President Trump. Thus far, we’ve had some great people. We’ve had former chiefs of staff. We’ve had people that run transitions. I just did one with Andy Card who was the chief of staff for President George W. Bush. He actually was one of the key people in developing the transition plans for President George H.W. Bush.
We also had some specific thematic podcasts. I had Stephanie Cutter who was the communications director for the Obama transition. She talked to me about the communication challenges they faced in the post-election, pre-inauguration period which was happening during the financial crisis. One interview I really enjoyed was with bestselling author, Michael Lewis, who wrote a book called The Fifth Risk which was all about the Obama to Trump transition. He is just a great storyteller.
I would encourage everybody to sign up and download Transition Lab on your favorite podcast app. If you’re interested in history, if you’re interested in politics, if you’re interested in tension between policy and implementation in government, then it’s the place to listen.
Download and Listen to this entire interview on The Business of Government Hour.