At this writing, the administrator of the General Services Administration still has not issued the “ascertainment” finding needed to trigger the resources available to incoming President-Elect Joe Biden and his team under the Presidential Transition Act of 1963. As a result, formal Transition activities – initial contacts between Biden-Harris agency review teams and career staff, issuance of funds, office space, briefings, so on – all remain blocked.
Timing on this decision is speculative. Probably the most important deadline is December 14, when electors chosen within each state must cast their votes for president and vice president. Each state must “certify” its result before then and approve its electors. Lawsuits by the Trump-Pence campaign claiming fraud or other violations in close states like Pennsylvania have so far failed to stop the process, but many remain unresolved and appeals are likely.
Theoretically, delays could still drag on after that point. The electoral vote count is not finalized until January 6, 2021 when Congress meets in a special joint session for that purpose. But no contest in modern memory has gone beyond mid-December, the longest being the Bush vs. Gore contest in 2000 which ended with Vice President Gore conceding on December 13 of that year.
But until the lawsuits succeed or fail, and the key states certify their results, it appears unlikely that President Trump will approve GSA green-lighting the Transition. This delay could create particularly severe problems for intelligence, military, and national security agencies where classified information is involved and security clearances are needed for incoming officials. Similarly, agencies addressing the COVID-19 emergency could be disadvantaged by long delays in coordinating planning, for instance, for the distribution of vaccines.
For domestic-oriented agencies like USDA, the delay could still create problems. Without direct access to USDA career officials, the Biden-Harris agency review teams remain largely in the dark about internal agency issues — budget, personnel, management, so on — and lack access to the great wealth of real-time data USDA collects on farm, nutrition, rural economy, and health conditions around the country, all essential to developing policy.
Still, the work of the Transition has accelerated sharply both behind the scenes and in public announcements. Already at this point:
- The Transition has announced almost a dozen choices for senior White House staff posts, including Chief of Staff Ron Klain, Deputy Chief of Staff Jen O’Malley Dillon, senior Advisor to the President Mike Donilon, and others. Click here for a full list, including bios;
- President-Elect Biden has conferred with many world leaders, governors, and members of Congress, though most Republicans on Capitol Hill have yet to speak with or acknowledge his status as President-Elect in deference to President Trump’s continued refusal to concede the election and start the Transition;
- The President-Elect has also conducted a video call with his various Coalitions to thank them for “saving the soul of America,” drawing some 700 participants. His message on the call reflected his public comments: to bring the country together and represent all of America including those who did not vote for him;
- The Transition has started taking resumes for people interested in administration posts, junior as well as senior. Here’s the link. In these blog posts, we will studiously avoid endorsing or opining on any particular candidates for positions. However, we do encourage anyone interested in the chance for government experience to apply. Those who have served, even at junior or mid- staff levels, can attest that it is a great life experience, allowing you to make a difference while getting an extraordinary education in government, politics, policy, and the country. Friendships and contacts made in these positions can last a lifetime.
- Agency review teams, though lacking direct access to agency staff and briefing materials, are still pressing ahead, relying on public information and contacts with recently retired agency staff as well as stakeholder groups. The Transition has solicited meetings with organizations wanting to meet and weigh in on particular agencies and issues. Here is the link.
- Finally, spirited campaigns have already developed, not only for key cabinet seats but also for positions with the agencies. Here a sample of the top-level speculation from CNN. Expect interested groups and Members of Congress to continue to put forward names over the coming weeks, as the politicking becomes more intense. If anyone would like more tailored advice on how to navigate this process, either as a candidate, a supporter, or simply a party affected by the outcome, please contact us.
The next key watershed step for the Transition — other than finally receiving an “ascertainment” ruling from GSA — will be the selection of Cabinet members and agency heads, probably within the next few weeks. Acting early on these top personnel choices allows the nominees time to prepare for Senate confirmation, ideally prior to or shortly after Inauguration Day on January 20, 2021. Once cabinet members are chosen, the Transition can also then start filling in selections for the many other key agency officials needed to support them, choices on which the Cabinet member traditionally is allowed some degree of input.
We will follow these developments and keep you posted with further updates. Watch this space.