Transition Will Be Anything but Ordinary in ’09

Posted September 26, 2008 at 3:39pm

The upheaval in the financial and housing markets adds yet another unique and critical dimension to the nation’s transition to the next president and the next Congress.

But that is not the only reason this will be no ordinary transition. Not since Lyndon Johnson handed the reins of power to Richard Nixon in 1969 has the nation faced a presidential transition in a time of war. In addition, this will be the first post-9/11 transition, with a relatively new Department of Homeland Security undergoing its first presidential transition while grappling with the threats we face here at home. The White House will need to fill thousands of political and appointive positions across government. And on Capitol Hill, with 26 House Members and five Senators deciding not to seek re-election, there are sure to be many Congressional newcomers as well.

While the Government Accountability Office, as a legislative branch agency, has extensive experience helping each new Congress, amendments in 2000 to the Presidential Transition Act included the GAO as a resource to the incoming administrations as well. The act specifically identified the GAO to serve as a source for key management challenges and risks to help presidential appointees make the leap from campaigning to governing.

We take this role very seriously, and our planning to effectively perform this role is well under way. I have recently testified at two Congressional hearings on this matter held before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce and the District of Columbia and the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Management, Organization and Procurement.

For this transition, the GAO will highlight urgent issues that the new president and his appointees will confront from Day One. These include immediate challenges ranging from national and homeland security to oversight of financial institutions and markets, as well as food and drug safety. The GAO will synthesize the hundreds of reports and testimonies we issue every year so that new policymakers can quickly zero in on critical issues during the first days of the new administration. Our analysis, incorporating the GAO’s institutional memory across numerous administrations, will be ready by the time the election results are in and transition teams begin to move out.

Although issues such as energy dependence, the economy and Iraq are, understandably, at the forefront of this year’s political debate, the truth is that significant problems plague a range of less-visible government programs and fiscal policies that directly affect the well-being of nearly every American. At many federal agencies, key missions and initiatives get low marks on efficiency and effectiveness. At the same time, current security and economic commitments will be competing with other worthy areas for resources.

To help prioritize issues, incoming officials are going to need solid facts on government performance and capacity. Navigating the federal government can be a daunting task with its multitrillion- dollar budget, millions of employees, myriad missions and infrastructure that spans not just our own borders but the entire globe.

Consequently, the GAO’s 2008 transition work will highlight key issues at major agencies as well as the need to modernize the machinery of government through better application of technology, financial data, human capital and contracting practices. Importantly, the GAO also will underscore the need to develop strategies for addressing the government’s serious long-term fiscal sustainability challenges, driven primarily by health care costs and changing demographics. Our goal is to provide Congressional and executive branch policymakers with a comprehensive snapshot of how things are working across government and the need to update some federal activities to better align them with 21st-century realities and bring about government transformation.

In keeping with the GAO’s role, we will not be making policy choices but will be providing Congress and the executive branch with clear facts and good, constructive options and suggestions that our elected officials can use in this pivotal transition year. My hope and belief is that the new and returning leaders will be able to use such information to help meet both the nation’s urgent issues and long-term challenges so that the U.S. stays strong and secure now and for the next generation.

Gene L. Dodaro is acting Comptroller General of the United States.