With Political Conventions Over, Presidential Transition Planning to Hit Full Stride

With political convention balloons now dropped in both Cleveland and Philadelphia, the federal government on Monday begins in earnest to conduct what both parties hope will be a smooth presidential transition under the new law signed by President Obama in March.

Designated transition staffers from both the Clinton and Trump campaigns will move in on Aug. 1 to office space near the White House. “By this time, they’ve toured the space, got designs and everything should be set up the way they want it to,” former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, who ran Mitt Romney’s 2012 transition and whose name is on the new law, told Government Executive. “They have spent the last two months thinking how to populate that space and will begin filling in desks with people that have responsibilities.”

There is also a major transition community meeting coming soon, though the schedule is secret, said former Sen. Ted Kaufman, D-Del., whose name is also on the law. Describing an earlier out-of-the-spotlight gathering of the transition community in upstate New York in April, Kaufman said, “The nice thing is that everyone got along wonderfully. It almost put a tear in my eyes that each one said how they much learned from questions from other campaigns. I wish everyone in America could have seen it. All this about people hating each other is overdone.”

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The General Services Administration, which, along with the Office of Management and Budget, plays the lead role in coordinating the sharing of agency resources and briefings to eligible candidates, is “taking into consideration best practices and lessons learned from previous transitions to deliver the best outcomes for the American people," said GSA Press Secretary Ashley Nash-Hahn.

“Services to be provided to the eligible candidates, on an equal basis and without regard to political affiliation, include suitable office space appropriately equipped with furniture, … office and information technology equipment, and office supplies,” she noted.

Following the Nov. 8 election, GSA will house the president-elect and vice president-elect within its National Central Office at 1800 F Street Northwest in Washington, Nash-Hahn said. Use of GSA’s Central Office space is expected to “yield substantial cost savings,” particularly in subsequent transitions.

 "The peaceful transition of power is a hallmark of American democracy, she added. “GSA is honored to help ensure a smooth and orderly transition that both fulfills our duties, as laid out in the Presidential Transition Act, and delivers services in a cost-effective manner.”

The only signs of transition tension so far surfaced as the Office of the Director of National Intelligence prepared to give both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump national security briefings. Partisans for both parties (Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., for the Republicans and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., for the Democrats have asked that the ODNI refrain from briefing the opposing candidate on the grounds of alleged unfitness to handle the responsibility.

The Senior Executives Association is also planning to work with the campaign transition teams. Noting that the past three administrations have lasted eight years, one veteran SEA board member told Government Executive, "Many senior executives have never seen a transition at the executive level. They're still learning as they go how it works."

Both Leavitt, who served the George W. Bush administration heading the Environmental Protection Agency and the Health and Human Services Department, and Kaufman—a longtime associate of Vice President Joe Biden—were consulted during crafting of the new law.

“I’ve studied transitions as far back as President Kennedy,” said Leavitt, who, with Kaufman has been working on the transition with nonprofits such as the Partnership for Public Service. “The most important difference now is that things are done overtly. We’re moving into a period in which it’s clear that it’s not a thing you can do secretly—the candidates see it as part of their role.”

The secrecy of the past was thought necessary, Kaufman said, “because if you’re ‘caught’ at it, the next day the Washington Post or the New York Times would report that [candidate] Shmelandops is so confident he will be president, he’s measuring the drapes for the White House.”

The political reality, Kaufman said, was that “everyone thought it was very damaging, so you had to carry it on underground, like during a World War II bombing campaign, you’d build a bunker. We got pretty good at it.” After (current and past) Hillary Clinton campaign chief John Podesta in 2008 got hundreds of staff involved in the transition, a reporter wrote a “measuring the White House drapes” story, Kaufman said, but “fortunately,” Republican candidate John McCain “stepped forward and squashed the story, because [the candidates] need to be prepared."

Kaufman, who complimented Leavitt for an effective 2012 transition preparation executed by the ultimately unsuccessful Mitt Romney campaign, said the biggest reason for the change in transition laws in recent years is that “historically, nothing could really start happening until we had a presidential nominee. It was clear there wasn’t enough time between Election Day and the swearing in for a successful transition,” he said, praising the George W. Bush administration transition to Obama chaired by Bush Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten. “The government has gotten incredibly complex, and is getting more complex exponentially.”

Leavitt said he prepared for the Romney Readiness transition guide by “taking 30 days to interview everyone I could who was involved and reading books, though most were about the political intrigue,” he said. “I became quite aware in the course of this what an important job this is and what a big job the whole institution of transition is.”

The only documents Leavitt’s team could find from the 1980s were in a box in someone’s basement. “We had to originate the design and originate everything” to create an information infrastructure for agencies in a projected Romney administration, he said. Those documents have been turned over to the Partnership for Public Service, which is serving as a transition archive.

One unanswered question is whether third-party candidates Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party and Jill Stein of the Green Party might eventually qualify for transition help.

As outlined in the statute, a non-party candidate would be recognized as an eligible candidate if that person meets constitutional requirements for eligibility for the office of the president, is on enough state ballots that the individual could be elected by the Electoral College and has demonstrated a significant level of support in national public opinion polls to be realistically considered among the principal contenders,” the GSA spokeswoman noted. “The administrator may also consider whether other national organizations have recognized the candidate as being among the principal contenders for the general election, including whether the Commission on Presidential Debates has determined that the candidate is eligible to participate in the candidate debates for the general election.” So far, no third party candidate has ever received services as an "eligible candidate,” she added. “This is only the second election in which GSA was authorized to provide any pre-election support to eligible candidates.”

Leavitt said the eligibility of third-party candidates “is a political question. There’s a pretty good chance that in September or October, one of them, more likely Johnson, could get into that category and get into the debates. GSA will have to wrestle with it.”

Kaufman stressed that he’s seen no signs of poor cooperation from the Clinton or Trump campaigns. “I don’t think anyone who gets involved fails to see the difference between partisan competition and the serious business of governing,” he said. “The kind of people in the room care about it. That’s how they got themselves into this particular piece of the puzzle. “

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