It is almost easy to forget, in this strange, tumultuous spring of 2020, that we still have a national presidential election, perhaps one of the most important in our lifetimes, just around the corner, five months from now. As a cascade of crises dominates national attention — the covid-19 pandemic and its economic fallout, nationwide protests over the killing of an unarmed black man by police in Minneapolis, military deployments, and the rest — inexorable wheels of government and politics have continued to turn quietly and behind the scenes.
Almost lost in the attention on current events and the campaign itself is an automatic process, governed by statutes and rules going back decades: the Presidential Transition.
We obviously have no idea yet who will win the 2020 presidential contest, be it the Republican incumbent President Donald Trump or the presumptive Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden. But already a process is underway to assure an orderly transfer, be it to a new Biden Administration or a second term for President Trump.
On April 27, Russell Vought, Acting Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) – part of the Executive Office of the President himself – issued instructions to Administration departments and agency heads to initiate the opening steps: https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/M-20-24.pdf. Statutes dating back to the Presidential Transition Act of 1963 and including its most recent update, the Presidential Transition Enhancement Act of 2019 (signed into law by President Trump on March 3, 2020), require a progression of actions beginning six months before Election Day. First comes the designation of the key Administration players: a White House Transition Coordinating Council, Agency Transition Directors, and individuals to serve as “points of contact” within each agency. As time gets closer, the work crescendos inside the Administration with the preparation of briefing books, issue papers, and interactions with the challenger’s own developing transition group.
The statues also designate the General Services Administration (GSA) to play a coordinating role, providing funding and office space to the Transition team created by the opposition candidate. By September, agencies must complete succession plans for non-career positions in the agency, the incumbent Administration must complete an MOU with the opposing team covering a host of logistical items, and campaigns must provide detailed ethics plans to govern their teams during the interim. OPM must provide quarterly reports on current political appointees attempting to “burrow in” to career agency positions, and the Comptroller General must identify “midnight regulations,” major new rules that an outgoing administration might try to finalize during its last months in office. Agencies must identify key priority decisions needing to be made in the opening weeks of the new term, and issues or problems demanding immediate attention.
For the candidate challenging the president, in this case Vice President Biden, they too must put together a transition team well in advance, with staff contacts for each agency. After Election Day, if the challenger succeeds, these will become the “landing parties” that arrive at each agency before the Inauguration to prepare plan the actual transfer of authority. One highlight is the “plum book,” published every four years and detailing each of the thousands of non-career agency positions a president, new or second term, can fill with political appointees – often pawed over intensely by job seekers and agency planners alike.
Each side – the incumbent and the opponent – has strong incentives for a smooth transition. If President Trump is reelected, a well-planned transition can help his Administration avoid pitfalls that many successful incumbents face in their second terms. Typically, up to fifty percent of an Administration’s key political appointees leave in the first six months of a second term as the political landscape shifts in fundamental ways. Second-term presidents often fail to adjust their programs to changing conditions, having spent the prior year pre-occupied with winning reelection. A good transition allows the chance for renewal, to assess first term successes and failures, update priorities, or consider addressing difficult issues considered too politically risky during a first term.
Should Vice President Biden be elected, the stakes obviously are much larger. Setting up a new Administration, filling thousands of non-career positions and establishing policy directions for a wide range of issues and agencies – especially during a tumultuous period as we are seeing in 2020 — can be daunting. Applications will be pouring in with discreet mini-campaigns waged for each political position. With fewer than eighty days between Election and Inauguration, failure to get a jump on things can cause lasting problems.
But there is also a higher mutual interest, the reason Congress has intervened over the decades to create a stable, predictable transition process. This most imaginable politically sensitive of tasks – assuring the peaceful, orderly transition of power from one side to the other, or the orderly maintenance of power within one side from a first term to a second – goes to the heart of our national identity as a democratic republic. The transition rules protect this natural treasure, making sure the process is automatic, insulated from the whims and passions of short-term politics.
We at OFW will track the transition process as it unfolds over coming months. Watch this space.