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Transition Update 2020

With fewer than three weeks till Election Day, neither campaign wants to take its eye off the ball.  All focus is on the effort to win 270 electoral votes and, with it, the presidency, be it for Democratic Nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden or for the incumbent, President Donald J. Trump.   So far, most public talk about “transition” – that 78-day period between November 3 and the inauguration of the new president – has focused on the contest itself, whether slow vote counts, mail-in ballots, re-counts, legal challenges, or even physical clashes will create controversy, doubt, or long delays until we know the final outcome. 

But behind the scenes, largely divorced from this drama, the more institutional side of “transition” – the actual planning either for a new Biden Administration should he win the contest, or a second Trump term should the outcome go his way – is progressing quietly.

As discussed in earlier blogs – here – statutes dating back to the Presidential Transition Act of 1963 and including its most recent update, the Presidential Transition Enhancement Act of 2019, provide a safe space, a process under which the actual quiet work of transition can proceed in an orderly, logical, and timely manner.  The rules set out a progression of steps starting six months before Election Day and, last April, OMB Director Russell Vought kicked off the process by issuing his initial instructions to agency officials.

Each side – the incumbent and the challenger – has strong incentives for a smooth transition. If President Trump wins reelection, a well-planned transition can help his Administration avoid pitfalls that many successful incumbents face in a second terms.  A good transition allows the chance for renewal, updating priorities, bringing in new ideas and new faces, or addressing priorities considered too risky during a first term.  For Vice President Biden, the stakes are even higher. 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.  

At this point, the transition is well underway.   The Trump Administration has designated key Administration players: a White House Transition Coordinating Council, Agency Transition Directors, and individuals to serve as “points of contact” within each agency. Current list for the major agencies.  As time gets closer, this work inside the Administration will crescendo with the preparation of briefing books, issue papers, and interactions with the challenger’s transition team.   

The Biden campaign too has been actively pursuing its transition effort.  Recently it posted an extensive list of key transition staff, including five co-chairs, a 15-member advisory board, and subject matter experts.  The Biden team has also submitted a required ethics plan to govern its process: 

Under well-established rules, a central role in managing the process is given to the General Services Administration (GSA), which, among other things, provides office space and funding to the challenger’s transition team prior to the election. The GSA’s latest report on its own transition-related activities as was published mid-summer.

For now, the substantive work of the two transition groups remains under wraps.  This is as it should be.  Neither side wants to divert attention from the immediate task at hand, winning the vote on Election Day.  President Trump, as the incumbent, wants to portray confidence in his effort, and Vice President Biden, as the challenger, wants to avoid looking presumptuous.  

Once Election Day passes, though, expect the process to accelerate very quickly.  If Vice President Biden is successful, his transition team’s “landing parties” will start arriving at agencies to start their assessments of pending issues.  The rush will be on to recruit candidates to fill administration positions and plan for the first 100 days in office.    This year, the process will be complicated by the coronavirus pandemic and the need to complete many functions remotely or over zoom.

Among the formal steps to keep an eye out for: (a) OPM must provide a report on current political appointees attempting to “burrow in” to career agency positions, (b) the Comptroller General must identify “midnight regulations,” major new rules that an outgoing administration might try to finalize during its last months in office, and (c) 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.

One highlight will be publication of the 2020 “plum book,” detailing each of the thousands of non-career agency positions that a president, new or second term, can fill with political appointees – a key resource for job seekers and agency planners alike.

Either way, we will follow these events as they unfold.  Watch this space.

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