Transition Progress

Posted October 20, 2008 at 3:15pm

For 10 years, Congressional scholars Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann have fruitlessly pounded on doors and opinion pages to get Congress, the White House and presidential campaigns to make the post-election transition process something other than a confused, inefficient, delay-ridden ordeal.

At last, with the help of White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten, they may have partially succeeded — but Congress, the Senate especially, still needs to do its part.

As Ornstein wrote in his Oct. 16 Roll Call column, “while nearly all the new Cabinet members nowadays are confirmed by the end of January, the same is not true for most top officials. What took an average of two months in the Kennedy administration has taken closer to 10 months in the past two presidencies.”

The 9/11 commission recommended that key national security advisers in presidential campaigns, as well as the candidates, be given classified intelligence briefings to prepare them to govern. Congress authorized the briefings, and they are being conducted.

But the rest of the transition process could easily continue to be a messy process of late starts, “transition team” jockeying, requirements that nominees fill out multiple forms — some actually have to be done on a typewriter — slow FBI investigations and delayed confirmation hearings.

One of the main causes is that presidential candidates are reluctant to appear “presumptuous” by getting the personnel process started before the election. Again this year, even though Ornstein urged the campaigns of Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) to make a joint statement pledging early action, they demurred.

But Bolten got the process going. He told Roll Call, “This is the first wartime transition in decades. We can’t afford to have the kind of gap that normally occurs in the transition process.” On Oct. 9, President Bush signed an executive order creating a Presidential Transition Coordinating Council to ensure that incoming appointees are swiftly cleared and fully briefed the moment they are named.

Quietly, the McCain and Obama campaigns have assigned teams to work with Bolten and his deputy, Blake Gottesman. Under former White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, the Obama operation is said to be more systematically organized than McCain’s under former Navy Secretary William Ball.

Bolten is also considering Ornstein’s proposal to ensure that the government can continue operating if terrorists attempt to “decapitate” it at the time of the inauguration — perhaps by having one or two of the incoming president’s Cabinet officials nominated by President Bush and confirmed by the Senate beforehand.

A smooth transition requires that Senate leaders and committee chairmen expedite the confirmation hearing process in the 11 weeks between the election and the inauguration and the approval process in the weeks immediately after.

And, beginning next year, Congress as a whole should move decisively to institutionalize what Ornstein and Mann have creatively begun.