Political commentator David Gergen, a professor at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, adds that the earliest days of a new Administration are critical because that's when a President and his staff have the most authority. The paradox, he says, is that because of the natural chaos of a transition, "that's also when you have the least capacity for making the right decisions."
Gergen ought to know. He worked in two Republican administrations and was brought into a Democratic one (Bill Clinton's) when the White House staff was floundering during its first year. One reason for the early chaos, says one of the transition scholars, Towson University professor Martha Joynt Kumar, is that the law discourages the existence of institutional memory. And little that a President and his staff may have done in places such as Austin, Little Rock, Sacramento-or even in the Vice President's office-approximates the pressure in the West Wing.
"A new administration, especially when there's a change of party, begins without a written record compiled by the previous occupants," Kumar says. "Those who have worked there almost uniformly describe this as a handicap. If people are going to learn about their jobs, they need to do that early, because once you get into the White House, it's like drinking from a fire hose, and you don't have the time to read anything, to talk to people."
Kumar's contribution was the White House interview program, in which some 75 previous White House employees, including former President Ford, provided their insights into what works and what doesn't in White House communications, administration, and policy-making. Those interviews were transcribed and made available to George W. Bush's transition office.
This was just one of many such efforts. At the Brookings Institution, Paul C. Light and the Presidential Appointee Initiative examined ways to improve the appointments process; the Center for the Study of the Presidency published a book of case studies exploring the successes and failures in previous administrations; the Heritage Foundation held seminars featuring former White House aides, political scientists who studied them, and reporters who covered them. The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, under the aegis of Norman J. Ornstein, has undertaken an ambitious three-year program called Transition to Governing.
There is some evidence that all of this activity helped the Bush team. Clay Johnson, the White House director of personnel, said as much in a recent forum at Brookings, even though Johnson didn't appear to be wild about Brookings' ongoing scorecard, showing how many presidential appointees have yet to be confirmed.
"The presidential transition of 2000-2001 worked well in spite of its being half the length of the normal period between the election and the inauguration," Kumar says. "The two transitions that stand out as successful are the Reagan and [George W.] Bush ones. Not coincidentally, they are two transitions where an effort was made to start early by identifying the positions in government, possible candidates, and job descriptions. Also, people who served in earlier administrations were brought into the process."
But there is only so much that planners can do. What about the Presidential Records Act, which requires that the White House be denuded of documents each time a new administration comes to power? What about Cabinet agencies nearly bereft of Bush appointees four months into his administration-and the estimates that Bush still won't have his team fully in place by Labor Day? Is this any way to run a government?
Most of the transition scholars don't think so, and as a kind of exit interview to help with the next transition, National Journal asked a half-dozen of these scholars to detail what they would do if they could wave a magic wand-or, better yet, could formulate executive orders and new statutes governing presidential transitions. Most of their replies revolved around the need to smooth the staffing process. David M. Abshire, head of the Center for the Study of the Presidency, put it this way: "The most important decision a President makes is whom he picks to make up that presidency."
Paul C. Light
Director, Governmental Studies Department
Cut the number of presidential appointees.
We made 11 recommendations, ranging from simplifying the disclosure forms for presidential nominees to increasing the pay of top government executives, but what I think is most important would be cutting the number of political appointees by more than half. The federal government would do just fine.
I just think the delayering and reduction of appointees is essential. Presidents can't have it both ways. They can't argue that every last presidential appointee is essential to their leadership, yet accept the staggering vacancy rates that persist over time. Nor can they argue that bureaucratic layers at the middle and bottom of government are a detriment to accountability and citizen service, as Bush does, yet ignore the layers of political appointees that exist at the top.
Although political appointees are but a drop in the bureaucratic ocean of federal employees in absolute numbers (just 3,000 out of 1.8 million civil servants), they account for 25 percent to 40 percent of the formal and informal bureaucratic layers that are interposed between the President and the front lines of government. As I argue all the time, a layer is a layer is a layer.
Norman J. Ornstein
American Enterprise Institute
Reduce the number of FBI background checks and Senate "holds."
The first thing I'd do is scale back the FBI background checks. It's taking two months. That's just insane! There is something like 1,250 positions requiring Senate confirmation.
There are basically three levels. At the top, you have those in significant policy-making posts, extending down to assistant secretaries and the occasional deputy assistant secretary. The most sensitive among them are the 40 or 50 who need major security clearances, the Cabinet Secretaries, heads of agencies, maybe a few deputy secretaries.
You might get to a total of 150 to 200 positions-I'm being generous here-and for those, you can make the case that you need some sort of FBI field investigation. But at the other end of the scale, you have appointees to the board of directors of museums, for instance. For these people and those with the lowest-rung jobs in the agencies, such as the assistant public affairs people, a simple computer background check is all you need.
For those in the middle, there could be something in between the simple computer check and the full FBI field investigation. I would have a sliding scale. The other problem is that there is no ranking by priority. The FBI has all these field checks to do, and they put them-as they come in-in a queue. That could be changed by executive order. In fact, the whole system could be.
And if I could really wave a magic wand, I'd also try to rein in these Senate holds. That wouldn't take legislation. It would take a decision by the Senate leadership. Keep in mind, this is just a custom. It does not exist in Senate rules. And this custom has run amok.
The theory behind the hold, originally, was that Senators needed to have an opportunity, if something came up that was important to them but they weren't entirely prepared for a debate on it, to give themselves a little time to get up to speed. The idea was to delay it for a week or two. Today, there are no limits. One Senator can block a nominee.
Worse, it's evolved into cold-blooded hostage-taking. You look at a nomination that is on track and block that one, even if you have no objections to the nominee. The idea is, you get the President's attention. The solution is that there ought to be a time limit on a hold. No hold or set of holds should be allowed to go more than 30 or 40 days.
Professor of Political Science
University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill)
Establish a permanent, professional White House personnel operation.
An incoming administration should have available to it a professional staff, such as exists at the Office of Management and Budget, whose responsibilities would be to manage the intake of applications and records about prospective presidential appointees, including resumes and contract information.
You have 400 to 600 policy-making jobs to fill, of the 6,000 or so that a President has some discretion over. You have serious candidates for those policy positions, sometimes more than a few for each position. But you also have thousands of people who have slept on the floor somewhere night after night getting the candidate elected President. Some of those people deserve appointments in the government they helped create. And everyone wants an appointment now. But all you have to deal with it is five or six high-level presidential appointees and 10 or so support staff trying to field these calls and trying to fill the jobs that need filling immediately.
A professional staff will not solve everything, but it will make it clear to every administration that you can't understaff personnel. And it will provide a professional staff who have been around the block on appointments. They can keep the wheels turning while the new team learns the ropes, just as OMB turns out a budget and reports while the new team gets its legs under it.
The transition is about scale and pace. To intake and process 60,000 applications in six weeks and then get on with the serious business of staffing out the administration requires getting some help.
Alvin S. Felzenberg
Director, Mandate for Leadership Project
Let the President have his people.
If I had one wish, it would be for a future (or current) President to issue an executive order streamlining the appointments process. He could mandate, for instance, that unless the FBI has a reason to believe that a nominee has done something derelict since his or her last appointment, the field investigation could begin at the end of their last government service.
To work around the slow appointments process, all the Cabinet Secretaries now have chiefs of staff who don't need to be confirmed. Thank God for these chiefs of staff, because without them the new Cabinet Secretaries would be lonely while everyone else awaits confirmation. But when a chief of staff to the Secretary of Defense doesn't need Senate confirmation, while the unpaid members of the National Council of the Arts do, the process is broken.
On the Capitol Hill side, I'd like to see an agreement with the Senate leadership to let the President form his administration. Alexander Hamilton envisioned the Senate's advise and consent role consisting of weeding out nominees of "unfit character" predisposed to corruption or dereliction of duty. He believed it essential that a President be allowed to choose his people.
During Bush I, I was part of a group that attempted to negotiate with the Senate Democrats how to reduce the paperwork, the number of forms. We cut back some of the crabgrass, but most of it grew back. I'd also like to see the requirements of the Office of Government Ethics made less onerous. This would require a change in the law. It was one of the Watergate-era reforms designed to ferret out wrongdoing, but the law now presumes everybody's a crook.
John P. Burke
Professor of Political Science
University of Vermont
Scale back the Senate confirmation process.
I think this transition has been done reasonably well, especially considering the time handicaps the Bush team faced because of how late the election was decided. But the whole appointments process has simply got to be fixed. It should be speeded up, and the only way to do that is to change it fundamentally.
Maybe we need a radical proposal. Here's mine: Instead of cutting the number of appointments, simply exempt most of them from Senate confirmation. Maybe leave the Cabinet Secretaries, but why put the third, fourth, and fifth levels through a confirmation process? We all know that those people aren't in place yet, but there's another problem with it as well: With so many nominees having to be confirmed by the Senate, they aren't even receiving the scrutiny that would make this process worthwhile. Requiring confirmation only for the top people would be a major improvement.
Martha Joynt Kumar
Professor of Political Science
Institutionalize the practice of an early and "continuing" transition.
Legitimizing the notion of early planning does not require legislation or executive orders. All it requires is an appreciation by news organizations and the Washington political and governing communities that planning is required for a successful transition.
There are two sources of information for a transition team: external and internal. Outside groups, such as ours, gathered information that will be useful to future White Houses. That material should be retained and made use of as the "continuing transitions" go forward.
Since those hired onto the White House staff stay an average of 18-24 months, there is always a transition. We found in our study that most of the new people coming into a White House after its initial start-up did so on a 911 basis. They were urgently needed and they came in quickly. There was little time to learn. If material was made available to all new hires, including things as basic as the White House address book we produced that lists the current addresses of past occupants, then people could read about their respective offices and have the tools to see what has been done in the past.
I believe that an office should be established within the White House that is responsible for keeping such material. That would have to be done through an act of Congress, but it would dovetail nicely with recent changes in the Presidential Transition Act, which call for an official orientation for new members of the White House staff. The memory could be the text accompanying orientation.
We simply must find a way of making certain that transition documents are kept-even if it means amending the Presidential Records Act of 1978. But National Archives officials tell me that it probably wouldn't require such a change.
Under the act, all records have to go with the outgoing President, but you can leave copies behind. I'm told the Clinton people left such transition-related records, but that they weren't there when the Bush people arrived. They were probably swept up by the General Services Administration. There needs to be a way of providing such material to the new President and the incoming staff so that the White House has an institutional memory.