Don’t wait to start the transition
After a typical election — because there are thousands of critical decisions to be made in just 11 weeks before the inauguration — the presidential transition would have started. This happened in 2008 and 2016 for newly elected presidents, as well as in 2004 and 2012, for incumbent presidents preparing for a second term in office.
Not this year, as election workers continue to count ballots in close races across the country to figure out who won, in spite of premature claims of victory. But, until they are done counting, what will happen to the incredibly important preparation to take office, should Joe Biden and Kamala Harris win? Should that planning stop?
The answer is a definitive “no,” and we can look to history to understand why.
In 2000, the last time the presidential election result wasn’t immediately resolved, the two campaigns took vastly different approaches. Both had been planning their transitions long before Election Day, yet, when the election result was in doubt, it was the Bush team that pushed ahead.
Four days after the election, two images appeared on the cover of the New York Times. There was a large photo of George W. Bush in Austin, Texas, surrounded by economic and foreign policy advisors, and another of Al Gore playing football in Washington with his son Albert. The contrast was stark.
Bush explained to the press: “I understand that there are still votes to be counted, but I am in the process of planning, in a responsible way, a potential administration…, so that should the verdict that has been announced be confirmed, we’ll be ready…to assume office and be prepared to lead.” The Bush team floated the names of who would be appointed White House chief of staff, Andrew Card, and secretary of State, Colin Powell, as well as who was planning the transition, Dick Cheney.
The Gore campaign chair William Daley protested “that their actions to try to presumptively crown themselves the victors, to try to put in place a transition runs the risk of dividing the American people and creating a sense of confusion.” Another official said “It is mind-boggling to me that they should be so presumptuous” and the The Washington Post editorial page agreed, writing “The Bush campaign shouldn’t be leaking purported news about its transition plans and otherwise giving the impression of measuring for new curtains in the Oval Office.”
Undeterred, the Bush team moved ahead again in late November after the final certification of the Florida vote, despite the recount remaining unresolved in the courts. Dick Cheney directed the transition team to relocate from Austin to government offices in Washington reserved for the transition. But as they packed their bags the General Services Administration (GSA) blocked the move-in and refused to release federal funds, claiming the winner wasn’t yet apparent. The Bush team instead rented space in McLean, Va., and 15 paid staffers and 50 volunteers were soon up and working, accepting job applications and setting up a transition website.
There were clear political motives for this aggressiveness, but there were practical reasons, as well. Key advisors to a president-elect have limited time to learn about the pressing national security issues facing the country. Recognizing this dilemma, on Nov. 28, the Clinton White House announced it would begin delivering the same daily intelligence briefing regularly delivered to Vice President Gore to the Bush and Gore transition directors. At the time, this decision compelled a ruling from the Justice Department that the FBI was, in fact, permitted to start background checks before the resolution of the election.
Years later, Congress codified this in federal law as a part of normal transition activities. This made it possible for George W. Bush’s outgoing White House in 2008 to share intelligence with Obama-Biden transition officials who had been pre-cleared by the FBI.
While partisans may disagree about the electoral outcome of the 2000 election, the immediate transition planning by the Bush team meant they were prepared to govern once the Supreme Court ended the recount in December. Based on this history, it is clear that transition planning should begin right away, even while the final counting of ballots occurs. Failing to do so, would be incredibly risky and irresponsible.
To do this, the Biden-Harris transition team should follow the precedent established by the Bush transition in 2000: accelerate decisions on the Cabinet, organize the White House, and do so in an open and transparent way. This will reassure not confuse the American people. For his part, the president should abide by federal transition law, share intelligence with officials on the Biden team who have been cleared by the FBI, and release federal funds for transition planning. None of this would interfere with final vote counting.
Delaying these actions by either candidate would be imprudent in normal circumstances, but during a pandemic with the economy on the brink, it is especially important for thorough planning and cooperation to continue today.
Heath Brown is Associate Professor of Public Policy at City University of New York, John Jay College and Grad Center and is the author of “Lobbying the New President: Interests in Transition.”