Election 2008

Alex Brandon/AP

In 2008, Presidential Transition Means Bipartisanship and Overlap

September 29, 2008 08:54 AM
by Liz Colville
The economic crisis and homeland security matters are motivating Senators McCain and Obama to put a newfound emphasis on bipartisanship.

Overlapping Administrations

On Sept. 9, U.S. News & World Report reported on “whispers” that the government was working with the presidential candidates to make a smoother transition from the Bush Administration to the administration of the election’s winner. “[T]he feds, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the presidential campaigns are considering a plan to keep on two or three key aides in agencies like the Pentagon, CIA, Treasury, and Homeland Security to pass the baton,” Paul Bedard wrote.

The fruit of that rumor was a Sept. 24 Congressional hearing entitled “Passing the Baton: Preparing for the Presidential Transition,” which focused on the General Services Administration’s role in and preparedness for the transition.

The economic crisis has given the candidates reason to accelerate the presidential transition process. Ariz. Sen. John McCain and Ill. Sen. Barack Obama traveled to Washington on Sept. 24 to meet with members of Congress deciding on a bipartisan plan to bail out failed financial institutions. The New York Times wrote that the meeting signified the candidates had become “leaders of their respective parties in an entirely new way” as Congress called on them for input and Sen. McCain voluntarily suspended his campaign to be part of the process. After declining an invitation from McCain to come up with a joint statement on the economic crisis on Wednesday, Sen. Obama agreed to go to Washington despite his statement that doing so would “infuse Capitol Hill with presidential politics.”

By Thursday, both candidates were emphasizing bipartisanship in public statements.

Earlier this year, the publication Government Executive underscored the fact that the economy is not the only area in which administrative overlap will occur as President George W. Bush and his team exit the White House. An advisory council to the Department of Homeland Security “issued recommendations … aimed at ensuring homeland security operations and programs are not compromised during the transition to a new presidential administration later this year.” One suggestion was that the Senate “form a select bipartisan group from existing oversight committees to expedite confirmation of all presidential appointments to national security positions in the Homeland Security Department.”

In a recent article on the presidential candidates’ transition plans, the New York Times suggested that the current political climate has given the candidates plenty of reason to justify an administrative overlap. “Experts on national security worry that America’s opponents will try to take advantage of the uncertainty surrounding the transition, the first since the terrorist attacks of 2001.” The economic crisis only adds to that “uncertainty.”

Hoping for a repeat of the successful transition President Ronald Reagan made when he took office—within a month he and his team had compiled plans that in large numbers made their way into law—McCain has hired William E. Timmons Sr. to conduct a study in preparation for the transition. Timmons “has worked for every Republican President since Richard Nixon,” Time magazine notes, and led the transition teams of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

Obama arguably has more work ahead of him transitioning from a Republican to a Democratic administration. News of his transition efforts came in June, with the Washington Post reporting that Obama had recruited John Podesta, a former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton and currently the president of the Center for American Progress, to his transition team. Marc Ambinder of The Atlantic reported in July that Podesta is also working on a Homeland Security Presidential Transition Initiative led by the think tank Third Way.

More recently, Obama suggested that he might keep Treasury Secretary Henry A. Paulson on during the transition to his administration, should he win.

Historical Context: Transitioning to a new president

There was no law governing the practice, but President Harry S. Truman advocated for better communication between outgoing and incoming presidents, holding a meeting with his successor, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in November 1952 “to discuss the problems of this transition period, so that it may be made clear to all the world that this Nation is united in its struggle for freedom and peace.” The Federation of American Scientists’ 2008 report on presidential transitions covers the Truman-Eisenhower transition and each that followed.

The Presidential Transition Act of 1963 was enacted “To promote the orderly transfer of the executive power in connection with the expiration of the term of office of a President and the Inauguration of a new President,” according to the Web site of the U.S. General Services Administration. But this Act chiefly provided funding and other support—for example, office space—for the incoming and outgoing administrations. There was no mention in the Act of training or overlap between two administrations.

A second act, the Presidential Transition Act of 2000, was written into law by President Clinton in light of the increasingly “complex and cumbersome” transition process from one administration to the next. The second act focused on training members of the new administration and was modified to reflect research by groups including the Brookings Institution and the Heritage Foundation.

More recent reports, including the Federation of American Scientists study mentioned above, have served to better inform and equip candidates, their teams and the departments involved in transition administration.

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