Presidential Transition Process Is in Need of a Major Upgrade

Posted October 15, 2008 at 2:08pm

The most vulnerable period for the United States, even in the best of times, is the first few months of a new administration. Whether a new president replaces one of his own party or the other, the early weeks leave him and his team flying blind. The outgoing administration takes the hard drives on the computers and empties the file cabinets, with all the papers, e-mails and other information headed to the National Archives and eventually to the presidential library (or other sites for lesser administration officials).

[IMGCAP(1)]In the modern era, the lack of information has unfortunately been accompanied by a shortage of top officials. While nearly all the new Cabinet members nowadays are confirmed by the end of January, the same is not true for most other top officials. What took an average of two months in the Kennedy administration has taken closer to 10 months in the past two presidencies. Of course, experienced and knowledgeable managers are there throughout the government — but not people the new president knows or trusts. New presidents take time to develop their own crisis-management systems and structures.

Not surprisingly, new presidents are tested early — oftentimes because some country or entity tries to capitalize on the inexperience and disarray. For President Bush, the first challenge came two and a half months after his inauguration, when Chinese jets collided with a Navy surveillance plane, forcing it down and capturing crew members, leading to a tense standoff that took strenuous diplomacy — fortunately, handled well by the new administration — to resolve.

These, of course, are not the best of times. Strains abroad, from Iraq and Afghanistan to China and Russia to Venezuela and North Korea, are accompanied by the continuing ominous activities of al-Qaida and the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression. All this makes the need for a new kind of transition, one dramatically accelerating the pace from the norm of the past several, urgent and compelling. We cannot afford to wait nine or 10 months for the top 100 or 200 executive appointees in national security, homeland security and economics to be nominated, vetted and confirmed. We cannot afford to have major gaps in knowledge from the outgoing White House to the incoming one. We cannot afford to have the next president easing his way into the job.

That is why the executive order issued last week by Bush, creating a Presidential Transition Coordinating Council to smooth the transition process, is so important and so welcome.

The council is chaired by White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and includes all the top senior officials, from the attorney general to the national intelligence director to the head of the National Archives, who are most important in making the change as seamless and quick as possible. The council will also tap into the expertise of outsiders who are knowledgeable about transitions.

I am convinced that Bush and Bolten are committed to making sure that key information, including sensitive security data, is shared with both candidates equally and that assistance, including vetting of senior officials, will be accelerated, using government resources in an unprecedented fashion. My conversations with Bolten and other top officials have deeply impressed in me that their desire to make this transition the best in our lifetime is genuine and deep. If they succeed, it will be a key component of the Bush legacy.

From the 9/11 commission to the National Academy of Public Administration, experienced government officials and students of government have recognized the need to have and fulfill a goal of making sure that at least the top 100 appointees in key areas are confirmed by the end of January or very soon thereafter. That requires the set of extraordinary steps that the new executive order signals — but it takes even more.

The candidates must acknowledge publicly that it is not presumptuous of them to plan openly to staff their administrations and plan their White House operations before Nov. 4 — it would be irresponsible if they did not do so. Both are working quietly to make such plans, but it hinders their operations to do so surreptitiously. Plus, each campaign has to resist the temptation to slam the other over signs of transition activity.

At the same time, we need a public commitment now by Senate leaders — including Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and key chairmen such as Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), along with their GOP counterparts — that confirmation hearings on top officials will begin early and will be carried out in December and January, enabling Senate votes on the top 100 soon after the inauguration.

Both parties also need to make pledges not to use frivolous holds or other gimmicks for partisan or other purposes on key nominees.

One other step is necessary. The most vulnerable day for America is Jan. 20, the day of the inauguration. Gathered together on the west steps of the Capitol are the incoming president and vice president, their outgoing counterparts, all Congressional leaders and nearly all Members of the House and Senate, and the entire Supreme Court. The outgoing Cabinet members have filed letters of resignation as of noon on the 20th; the incoming Cabinet is normally not confirmed until after the ceremonies. If something happens at the inauguration, everybody in the line of succession could be gone, leaving a fog of war and no clear sense about who would step in.

The best insurance policy to take now would be to follow the State of the Union model. Bush should agree to have one or two of his top Cabinet members, say the secretaries of State and the Treasury, resign as of 9 a.m. Jan. 20, with Bush nominating the incoming president’s choices so that the Senate can confirm them before the inauguration. They could then leave town, meaning that at least one top official representing the views of the new president and clearly in the line of succession would be away in case of disaster.

Bush, to his great credit, has taken a big step toward making the country safer during a tumultuous time of transition. The burden is now on the new transition council, as well as on Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), and on the top Senate leaders, to make sure the promise is fulfilled.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.