Had voters decided differently, one of the first acts of a Mitt Romney administration in January would have been a green light for the disputed Keystone XL oil pipeline. So reported former Gov. Mike Leavitt, R-Utah, the chairman of the Romney Readiness team that existed for several months during election year 2012, and whose members gathered on Wednesday for a mini-reunion convened by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.
“In laying out a work plan for each department of government, we aspired to create a federal government in miniature,” said Leavitt, ticking off agencies ranging from the State Department to the Federal Reserve to the Health and Human Services Department. “We populated them with experienced people who’d served in those departments, and we discussed the Keystone pipeline as an example of getting the cross-agency process ready.”
The occasion was release of a book titled “Romney Readiness Project 2012: Retrospective and Lessons Learned,” which contains a forward by Mitt Romney in which he states, “My campaign was not successful but our Readiness Project team was.”
Max Stier, president and CEO of the partnership, praised the book as “a remarkable effort to document the readiness project to capture how to do things right.”
The Romney team was the first to prepare for a change in power since passage of the 2010 Pre-election Presidential Transition Act, which, Stier explained, sanctioned and funded efforts by the party out of power to set up a preparation team not just after Election Day but earlier, immediately after the summer political convention. “Up until 2008, the public’s expectation was that you don’t do this for fear of being accused by partisans of measuring the drapes” in the White House, Stier said. But now “you do it publicly as part of your responsibility” because the world is more complex and changes more fast-paced,” leaving transition time as a period of “vulnerability” for the country, he said.
Leavitt described how his team of eight or 10 began meeting “very quietly” in May 2012 in temporary office space on Washington’s New Jersey Avenue, concerned that they “not be a distraction” to the Romney campaign. Past transition records, he noted, “were boxes moved from one person’s basement to another person’s desk.” Hence the new book was an effort at a “practical recounting of our own experiences and what we learned. We did not transition, but there was a plan,” Leavitt said. “Even though the real test of plan is execution, we had an extraordinarily good group.”
In August 2012, the team moved to “business-ready environment” in the Mary Switzer building on Independence Ave. in Southwest Washington, thanks to “an excellent job” by the General Services Administration, spearheaded by Darren Blue, Leavitt said.
The team, which eventually grew to 500, some 85 percent of them volunteers, proceeded to prepare four “deliverables,” Leavitt said. These included a 200-day plan for Romney’s agenda, providing a budget framework and taking him up to Congress’ August recess; identifying a team for the Cabinet, White House councils and 150 Senate-confirmed positions; establishing good congressional relations; and setting up an Office of the President-Elect, complete with a master daily schedule.
Policy, the veterans stressed, was made in Boston by the campaign, with Leavitt traveling once a week to meet with Romney at a hotel or on a plane and showing him one-page management memos so that Leavitt could speak on his behalf at mock interagency policy meetings back in Washington. The D.C. group also agreed to speak with one voice to Congress and with almost no voice to the media.
Part of the challenge was managing people’s ambitions and hopes without delving into who gets hired after the Nov. 6 election. A key principle was that “no one is guaranteed a job in the administration,” said Christopher Liddell, the teams’ executive director who has been chief financial officer at Microsoft and General Motors.
The Obama administration incumbents “were responsive, useful, and good to work with,” Leavitt said. “Our people would have been proud of the bipartisanship.” He also praised the help from precedents for cooperation set by the George W. Bush White House, two key members of which--Clay Johnson III and Josh Bolten-- were in the audience Wednesday.
That bipartisan praise for the Bush approach was echoed by panelist Chris Lu, who headed the readiness project for President Obama beginning in May 2008. His team of some 15, which eventually grew to 75 counting volunteers, began “meeting in a smelly office above the subway on Massachusetts Avenue,” he said. “We were blessed” to have veterans of the Clinton administration such as former chief of staff John Podesta and Environmental Protection Agency Chief Carol Browner. “It was a time of remarkable change in the world,” Lu said, citing the financial downturn and the eventual Recovery Act. “Plans we made in the summer of 2008 became inoperative in the fall.”
Speakers agreed on specific lessons that might be considered if Congress amends the 2010 transition act. The required Memorandum of Understanding for GSA “took longer than we expected,” Leavitt said. He would like to see future candidates organize “pre-clearance” for a few hundred qualified candidates for eventual top federal jobs, having them fill out the forms and receive ethics counseling in advance to avoid having a short-staffed government operating into May of the first year. He also suggested accelerating security clearances for newcomers in agencies.
In 2016, there will be two readiness teams, “an insurance premium for the U.S. government,” he said. It’s important for sensitivities that they be given separate locations, Leavitt added.
His former colleagues at the reunion, meanwhile, said they were maintaining their “esprit de corps” and “turning lemons into lemonade,” having taken 16 teams that worked for Romney and kept them intact helping Republican House members and governors.