In-Depth: Sponsoring Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) introduced this legislation to clarify how and when the General Services Administration (GSA) should assist presidential transition teams. When he originally introduced this bill alongside Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) in 2015, Sen. Johnson said:
“Regardless of what party wins an election and takes the White House, it is imperative that the transition of power is as smooth as possible. Handing over the keys to the entire $3.5 trillion federal government is a colossal undertaking. I am pleased to cosponsor legislation... that will make modest but important improvements to streamline the transition process.”
Kristine Simmons, vice president of government affairs at the Partnership for Public Service, says this legislation is in line with the tradition of Congress passing legislation to ensure that transition support is nonpartisan:
“Presidential transitions are huge undertakings. Over the years, Congress has passed various laws to ensure that the federal government provides transition support on a nonpartisan basis. The bipartisan Presidential Transition Enhancement Act continues that tradition by clarifying existing laws and ensuring that it reflects best practices.”
The Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transition notes the importance of a good presidential transition:
“Preparing to take over the presidency of the United States of America is highly complex and extremely important. Done well, it will set up a new administration for success for the next four years; done poorly, and it will be difficult for a new administration to recover… New administrations often have faced a major crisis within their rst few months in o ce, from the economic meltdown that confronted President Barack Obama as he took the reins in January 2009, to the September 11th terrorist attacks that occurred nine months after President George W. Bush’s inauguration, to the lingering savings and loan crisis that required the early attention of President George H.W. Bush in 1989. Candidates cannot wait until after the election to begin thinking about how they will organize and prepare to deal with such emergencies. This work must begin well in advance of Election Day so the new administration is ready to govern—and prepared for any possibility—on day one.”
The Congressional Research Service contends that there’s growing recognition that well-planned transitions are needed to ensure smooth transfers of power:
“Growing recognition of the necessity of a well-planned, organized, and coordinated transition to a new Administration's ability to assume responsibility on inauguration day for governing has shifted stakeholders' perspectives. Contributing to the impetus for a more robust transition with a longer lead time (i.e., pre-election planning) was the realization that the period of time between the date of the general election and inauguration day is insufficient for accomplishing necessary tasks and activities given the complexity of a presidential transition and the federal government.”
This bill unanimously passed the Senate with the support of three Democratic Senate cosponsors. Its 115th Congress predecessor, also sponsored by Sen. Johnson, passed the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs but didn’t receive a full Senate vote.
Of Note: About 75 days after an election in which an incumbent president leaves office, the entire leadership of the executive branch is replaced.The Government Accountability Office (GAO) observes that contemporary presidential transitions now require the president-elect and their team to decide upon over 4,000 political appointments and prepare to manage the entire federal government, which comprises over four million civilian employees and military personnel with a nearly $4 trillion budget.
In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville called the American presidential transition a revolution caused by law. Although some form of transition of power has been carried out for over 200 years, it wasn’t until 1963 — during the Kennedy administration — that Congress enacted the Transition Act to provide money for the next transition. After its passage, Kennedy’s assassination and Lyndon B. Johnson’s assumption of the presidency and subsequent re-election meant that the first formal transition wasn’t until 1968, when Richard Nixon became president.
In March 2016, then-President Obama signed the Presidential Transitions Improvements Act of 2015, requiring the government to set up transition councils, identify agency leaders responsible for transition planning, and make sure that career civil servants are ready to step in for the previous administration’s political appointees, who are expected to leave the government long before the formal inauguration of the next president.
In September 2017, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report criticizing the Trump presidential transition team for “lack of attention to ethics and disregard of ethics precedents set by previous administrations.”
In the leadup to the 2020 presidential election, some Democrats are already anticipating — and attempting to plan for — a hostile Trump transition should a Democrat win the 2020 presidential election. At least one outside group working with 2020 Democratic campaigns has launched an effort to give campaigns an early look at the landscape awaiting them if they triumph over Trump; additionally, the Partnership for Public Service is openly appealing to Trump and his Democratic opponents to start thinking early about transition planning even if doing so comes across as “presumptuous.”
Summary by Lorelei Yang
(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / TriggerPhoto)