Why we should worry about campaign donors and the next presidential transition

If you wanted a position in presumptive Republican nominee Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpCensus Bureau intends to wrap up count on Oct. 5 despite judge's order Top House Republican calls for probe of source of NYT Trump tax documents New Yorkers report receiving ballots with wrong name, voter addresses MORE's Cabinet or a seat at the table for the planning of likely Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonOvernight Defense: Government funding bill butts up against deadline | Pentagon reports eighth military COVID-19 death | Trump, Pentagon collide over anti-diversity training push Voters split on whether Trump, Biden will win first debate: poll New Monmouth poll finds Biden with 6-point lead MORE's White House, what would you do? For Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.), he's already been offered the plum position of overseeing Trump's transition team, a group of advisers charged with figuring out what to do the day after the election. Though she hasn't made it public yet, Clinton likely has her own transition team busy planning. To be sure, even though we are six months from the election, presidential transition planning has begun, and savvy insiders are already lining up.

ADVERTISEMENT

For the rest us, a campaign contribution to one of the candidates, or even to an associated super-PAC, might yield a golden ticket. In the past, campaign contributors were well-positioned to influence the incoming administration in numerous ways, especially through a position on the transition team. 

Based on a new report, over half of those who served on President George W. Bush's transition team were campaign contributors, and many were large-dollar supporters. For example, Enron CEO Ken Lay was a prominent financial backer of the Bush campaign, and he was later appointed to the Bush transition team overseeing appointments to key federal posts, including to the same agency charged with regulating Enron's energy business.

Eight years later, approximately the same percentage of President Obama's transition team had previously contributed to his campaign, including some who gave tens of thousands of dollars. Given that less than 1 percent of Americans donate anything to candidates, it seems clear that campaign contributors have been greatly overrepresented on transition teams in the past.

Once on a transition team, a former contributor is given inside access and influence over who will be appointed and what policies will be atop the president's agenda. As the case of Lay suggests, this raises numerous questions about money improperly buying political access. It is, of course, illegal to exchange a contribution for a job in government or political favor. Does this relationship between contributions and transition teams raise any similar worries?

For many voters, especially the large percentage of extremely angry voters in 2016, it is reasonable to suspect it would worry them quite a bit. Polling suggests that Republicans and Democrats alike believe elected officials in Washington are too influenced by money and the vast majority of Americans believe money has too much sway over campaigns. Regardless of which candidate wins, a transition between presidents in 2016 that is dominated by campaign contributors will greatly exacerbate these feelings.

What this means for candidates is that they should be much more open and transparent about the relationship between their campaign, supportive super-PACs and their transition team. Candidates should be clear about how they will seek advice for transition planning and what ethical guidelines those chosen to serve will be compelled to comply with. They should also explain what role super-PACs might play in transition planning over the next six months, since it is unclear what federal regulations prohibit. Answering these questions in the aftermath of the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision is even more important given that the total amounts raised to support each candidate will likely shatter historic records.

Failing to be open during the transition period risks further undermining public trust in government and eroding confidence that voters ultimately determined the outcome of the 2016 election and its aftermath.

Brown, an assistant professor of public policy at the City University of New York, John Jay College and the Graduate Center, is the author of "Pay-to-Play Politics: How Money Defines the American Democracy."